Senators Benefit From ‘Safety Valve’
John Sununu (R-N.H.) jokes that there was an overriding reason he ran for Senate last year: to get out of Rep. Mike Oxley’s (R-Ohio) early-morning baseball practices.
The Senator said that during his first few years in the House he noticed that the only Senator who played in the Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), wasn’t required to attend practice nearly as often as the House Members on the team. That trend continued in 2001 and 2002, when Santorum was joined on the GOP squad by Sen. John Ensign (Nev.). Both of the Representatives-turned-Senators always seemed to have more leeway when it came to practice, a privilege that only appeared to go to Members of the so-called “upper chamber.”
“Why do you think I ran for the Senate?” Sununu asked rhetorically, referring to his successful 2002 race. “I wanted to be able to get in the game without showing up for practice. The only way to guarantee that is to get elected to the United States Senate.”
Sununu quickly emphasized that he was only joking, or at least only half-joking, and that he actually enjoys the camaraderie that Coach Oxley instills in the players at the rise-and-shine practices. “I will be at practice, but it’s nice to know I have my safety valve,” said Sununu, a regular for the GOP squad since 1997, his first year in the House.
This year Sununu, Santorum and Ensign are expected to be the only Senators suiting up for the 42nd edition of the Republican vs. Democrat contest, a small number but one that has tripled in recent years and could grow even more in the elections to come. And all of the Senators playing — as well as those potential Senators who would likely play in future baseball games — are Republicans, a fact that is most likely driven by the politics of the moment: Senate Republicans have done a good job of electing more younger, and athletic, newcomers than the Democrats.
Santorum is glad to have the support, after having spent 1995 through 2000 as the only Senator playing in the game. Tradition has dictated that the game is played mostly by House Members, something explained partly by the fact that there are hundreds of fairly young, still nimble Members in the House, as opposed to the older Senate.
Also, the House schedule is more easy to control, with a Rules Committee that can purely dictate the time and pace of floor debate. In years past, Santorum has found himself at the whim of other Senators’ arguments and debates in trying to make it to the game on time.
The trio of GOP Senators playing in this year’s game are hoping for reinforcements in the next couple of elections. Ex-Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.), a regular on the squad in his three terms in the House who even tried his hand at pitching in the 2000 game, is considering a run against Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D) in 2004.
Looking toward the 2006 elections, Rep. Zack Wamp (R-Tenn.), a tenacious infielder who has played shortstop and third base for the GOP, is widely expected to make a bid for the seat currently held by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R), who expects to step down at the end of his current term. And Rep. Chip Pickering (R-Miss.) — a third baseman who shifted to catcher last year when Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) moved from behind the plate to take over the pitcher’s mound — is also a potential Senate candidate in ’06.
Pickering, a former aide to Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), is considered a strong candidate to replace Lott if he steps down that year, as is widely expected.
If those races come to pass, and Thune, Wamp and Pickering were to get elected, the GOP could in 2007 put an unprecedented all-Senate infield on the diamond: Thune at pitcher, Pickering at catcher, Santorum and Sununu at first and second, with Wamp at third and Ensign at shortstop.
Democrats, on the other hand, haven’t elected nearly as many young Senators in recent years. In the three previous election cycles, Democrats have gained just three new male Senators who were under 50 at the time of their election: Evan Bayh (Ind.), John Edwards (N.C.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.). None of that trio has previous experience in the House, so they have no prior connection to the game.
Santorum joked that it was “superior athletic talent” on the GOP side of the chamber that led to the greater participation among Republican Senators in the game. But, he admitted, “Youth has a little to do with it.”
And he joked that younger Senate Democrats were too focused on their own ambitions to have the time to join in a fun game like baseball, noting Edwards’ campaign for the White House. “He’d rather run for office than run the bases,” he said.
Still, Santorum and Sununu said they are hoping to lure more Senators out to the game, with age not being a factor at all. Sununu said he’s lobbying Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) — a former University of Georgia baseball player elected to the Senate last fall after four House terms — to play in this year’s game.
Informed of Sununu’s revelation of the lobbying effort, Chambliss, who turns 60 this fall, said it’s very doubtful he’ll be playing this year. “He’s going to have to lobby a lot harder,” Chambliss said.