Chiefs Eschew Partisanship

Posted March 9, 2009 at 6:38pm

In an institution that has seen the rise of many a bipartisan “gang— in recent years, the monthly meeting of Senate chiefs of staff — now in its seventh year — might be the best-kept secret on Capitol Hill.

Launched almost by accident in 2002 by Sen. Lamar Alexander’s (R-Tenn.) chief of staff, Tom Ingram, and Sen. Mark Pryor’s (D-Ark.) chief of staff, Bob Russell, the group of top Senate aides has grown from a family of two to about 60 regulars. Known informally as the bipartisan chiefs of staff group, the bloc has no leadership structure, just a 12-member advisory board of six Democrats and six Republicans.

In addition to their monthly breakfasts at Capitol Hill’s Monocle restaurant, the chiefs meet in the evening bimonthly — usually welcoming a special guest. They span the political spectrum, with aides to Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) participating.

“We started doing breakfast in the Senate dining room once a month,— Russell said of the group’s early gatherings. Ingram interrupted, “And we ended up taking up about four to six tables and being a little rowdy. And so the Senators — some of the Senators — suggested that maybe we should …—

“They ran us out of the Senate dining room,— said Russell, jumping back into the conversation to finish Ingram’s sentence.

In a joint interview with Roll Call, Ingram and Russell discussed how the group blossomed amid what many longtime Senate observers believe were some of the chamber’s most partisan years. The two aides arrived on Capitol Hill following the 2002 elections. Alexander won an open seat; Pryor was the only Democrat to defeat a GOP incumbent that year.

Neither newly minted chief of staff was a Washington, D.C., veteran. But they had much in common. Both were close personal friends with their bosses; both worked for Senators with an interest in working across the aisle; both had an extensive private-sector background; and neither intended to stay in town very long. Ingram was in private business in Tennessee, and Russell was an attorney in Little Rock, Ark.

What began as a way for Ingram and Russell to discuss the nonpolitical, managerial aspects of their new jobs — and reach across the aisle for some political and policy insight — quickly mushroomed. The pair initially invited some of their fellow GOP and Democratic chiefs to join them at their breakfasts, but as word of the gatherings spread, more top Senate aides wanted in.

“Tom and Bob are natural leaders, and they understand the best way to get things done in this town is by keeping the lines of communication open,— said Susan McCue, a charter member of the group and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) former chief of staff.

“During some of the most divisive [President George W.] Bush years, we kept those lines of communication open,— continued McCue, who now runs the firm Message Global. “The group might have been the only functioning and productive group of bipartisan operatives working throughout those years.—

Indeed, the bipartisan chiefs flourished during some of the Senate’s most partisan hours. And while they won’t claim any involvement, they watched closely as a bipartisan group of Senators came together in 2005 to form the “Gang of 14.— That Senate gang, the first of several, helped cut a deal and avert a showdown over Bush’s then-stalled judicial nominees.

The upcoming Senate battle over President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2010 budget proposal is not likely to be resolved via the bipartisan chiefs. Nor are the Democratic and Republican chiefs likely to forge a bipartisan deal on health care anytime soon.

Resolving political differences between their Senate bosses is not the group’s goal, nor has it ever functioned that way. In fact, Ingram and Russell describe the meetings as a haven from politics that has maintained its character even as the Senate became more Republican in 2004, flipped to Democratic control in 2006 and became further Democratic last November.

The gatherings offer a forum for top Senate aides to develop bipartisan relationships — the kinds that would be difficult to come by otherwise. The group also provides a vehicle for chiefs to discuss the more mundane but still very important aspects of their jobs such as personnel and office managers.

The group recently concluded its inaugural retreat, a weekend in Philadelphia featuring a lecture by historian David McCullough.

The evening events have been held at locations such as the Newseum, George Washington’s historic home at Mount Vernon and the National Archives, with noted special guests over the years such as Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer and Antonin Scalia, ex-White House officials Mike McCurry and Karl Rove, and ex-Senate Majority Leaders Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) and Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

“The real purpose of it all is building relationships. So a large part of it is getting to know each other and getting comfortable with each other,— Ingram said.

“I now know most of the chiefs of staff and am very familiar with them,— Russell said. “So no matter what the issue is, whether its coming from the staff or coming to me from the Senator, I can pick up the phone and call a chief of staff. … Before, without knowing who was on the other side, you just didn’t know how anybody might respond or even where to start.—

The chiefs’ primary purpose has always been relationship building, but the organization has also spawned splinter groups with more specific goals.

One such group is a policy study roundtable on issues relating to China. Another deals with conflict resolution and how to address the various problems faced by chiefs of staff on a daily basis.

The group has served as a unique forum for the chiefs to share with each other their thoughts and stories that would be difficult for others to understand, such as when Shawn Whitman, then chief of staff to Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.), recounted for his colleagues what it felt like when his boss died. Thomas lost his battle with cancer in June 2007; Whitman is now chief of staff for Thomas’ successor, Sen. John Barrasso (R).

Jackie Cottrell, chief of staff to Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), recalled the aftermath of the tornado that wiped out Greensburg, Kan. and the help and support her office received from several of her counterparts. Cottrell said there were offers to provide extra staff, including to handle the phones, which were ringing off the hook, as well as words of support.

Cottrell credited the bipartisan chiefs group almost solely for the help Roberts’ office received as it dealt with the tragedy and worked to help Kansas and the residents of Greensburg recover. Additionally, Cottrell said the group has improved the ability to communicate with other Senate offices on policy matters, which she said has had a direct benefit not only on the Senate, but on Kansas.

“I think it’s probably one of the best stories on the Hill for bipartisanship that no one knows about,— Cottrell said. “There are 100 offices up here, and we all have the same challenges, no matter what our boss’s party affiliation is.—