Senate Democrats were thrilled to return, in person, to their traditional Tuesday caucus lunch meeting for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic prompted them to go virtual more than one year ago. Tuesday’s gathering, however, lacked a key ingredient.
“There was no food,” Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell told reporters afterward.
Senators, who are mostly vaccinated, were encouraged to not eat or drink during the meeting, which was the first time the 50 Democrats had gathered in one space together in the 117th Congress, besides the chamber floor.
The lunch meetings, which date back to the 1950s and were first implemented by Republicans, serve as a key agenda-setting tool for each party to launch the rest of the week’s business.
Known colloquially as “Tuesday lunches,” they are sometimes held on Wednesdays if the Senate is out of session on a Monday. Following a partial evening of business Monday after senators fly in from around the country, the Tuesday gatherings are used to get each caucus on the same page on the policy and political issues of the week. The talking points are put promptly to use when each party holds its own news conference after the lunch meetings.
Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse told CQ Roll Call that the calculus is always the same: how to get the most done in the limited number of legislative days available.
“That’s going to be the consistent focus throughout as we try to take advantage of the position voters gave us and things that they entrusted us to do for them,” he said.
This week, Whitehouse was happy to have one fewer conference call or video conference on his calendar.
“You could look around and see folks for once and not have everybody be a Zoom face,” he said.
Some lawmakers were rusty Tuesday getting back into the routine of the midday meeting. Cantwell admitted that she miscalculated, realizing after the faux lunch that there was the news conference, then votes and then other things on her calendar.
“You had to eat before or after. I made it until about 10 till 2 p.m., or whenever I gave up; I had to find some food,” she told reporters after arriving early for the post-lunch news conference. “I went in there thinking I could make it.”
Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown credited his colleagues for staying masked up through most of the meeting and said it was great to see and chat with them.
“It’s the informality, the informal discussions, those informal interactions [that] are so important,” he said. “It’s just a good feeling and makes us better at our jobs.”
Senate Republicans maintained their lunches through most of the pandemic, moving them to larger rooms, limiting the number of lawmakers per table and trading in a buffet for individual meals packaged for senators to grab.
GOP leader Mitch McConnell did suspend in-person lunches in late November when cases among Republican senators were on the rise, but they resumed thereafter.