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Bipartisan Lunch Gets Plaudits, but Senate Still Stuck

From left, Sens. Gary Peters, D-Mich., Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Jack Reed, D-R.I., arrive for the bipartisan Senate luncheon in the Kennedy Caucus Room in the Russell Senate Office Building Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Baby steps.  

The first bipartisan Senate lunch brought praise from both sides of the aisle Wednesday, but anyone expecting instant results will be disappointed.  

Indeed, the bipartisan lunch was followed by a partisan vote — and another filibuster.  

For the second day in a row, Democrats blocked debate on a bill providing funding for the Department of Homeland Security, demanding a "clean" bill without policy riders to block President Barack Obama's action on immigration.  

Most members seemed to find the get-together to have at least some value.  

Sen. Johnny Isakson said he hoped the gatherings would take place "periodically."  

"There are times you need to be able to talk with your own caucus, but also times it's good to get everybody together and get to know each other better," Isakson said.  

There was general agreement on one thing: The bar for improving relations is low.  

"It couldn’t hurt," Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said before the lunch.  

That was the refrain from several senators when asked about the prospects for reaching across the aisle, but some admitted they didn't expect much.  

"I don't see anything that is accomplished," Sen. James M. Inhofe said of the lunch. "Everything that is controversial won’t be discussed."  

Asked why he was attending anyway, the Oklahoma Republican said, "it's Susan Collins' food."  

The Maine Republican furnished the lunch with lobster salad, ice cream and blueberries from her home state. Ham was also on the menu.  

One GOP senator said Democrats had brought in the ham because they thought lobster would appear too fancy. And Inhofe was right about avoiding controversial topics. The organizers were more focused on fostering personal relationships between members, something that senators on both sides of the aisle say have been lost and have made legislating more difficult.  

"If you don't have that, those relationships, if you don't have that trust, you'll never get there on that front," New Mexico Democrat Martin Heinrich said. "Sen. Flake and I have worked a lot on fire suppression, on forest stewardship issues. We're able to do that because we know and trust each other, and you have to get to know your colleagues to know where to start."  

Heinrich and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., had proposed such a luncheon after the 2014 election, having spent part of August recess together on an uninhabited island.  

"I'll bet the seeds of substantive conversation started at these tables, and they will continue privately over the next weeks, and you'll see it'll bear fruit," said New York Democrat Charles E. Schumer, deferring questions on substantive issues of the day at a joint media availability with Flake, Heinrich and Republican Conference Chairman John Thune of South Dakota.  

The lunch — which is expected to be a recurring event, about once every work period — included talks from freshman senators and a few veterans, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.  

"This was a really good idea that [Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va.] and I should take more credit for," said Mark S. Kirk, a Republican from Illinois.  

Kirk and Manchin have been pushing for more social interactions among the members to foster friendships like the one that they share, and ultimately more bipartisanship.  

Freshmen that spoke included Republicans Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, and James Lankford of Oklahoma. Democrat Gary Peters of Michigan also spoke.  

The event organizers said Capito spoke of her first meeting with Manchin decades ago, when she bought carpet from her senior West Virginia colleague's family business.  

Kirk said he had no idea Peters was a fellow naval reservist and that he ran the lottery in Michigan. Collins said she didn't know Peters had a background in finance and had worked for Merrill Lynch.  

Collins, who is chairwoman of the Aging Committee, was on her way to a hearing on financial exploitation of seniors, and hopes to work with Peters on the issue.  

"I always felt when we have so many new members that there should be some kind of lunch or dinner where each of them stands up and tells us about themselves," Collins said.  

Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee, said he supports the idea of the lunch.  

"It's always a good idea to know the people you are working with," he said. "Today’s adversaries are tomorrow’s allies."  

"We find ourselves in a team meeting in almost every spare minute we have, and most results in the Senate start with some sort of relationship based on trust," Alexander said. "So anything that can help senators understand each other is a good beginning."  

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