Can 400 pounds of barbecue help grease the wheels of the Senate?

Lawmakers revive Isakson’s old lunch — but meat ‘isn’t magic’

Sens. Mitt Romney, left, and Raphael Warnock fill their plates at a bipartisan barbecue lunch Thursday.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Sens. Mitt Romney, left, and Raphael Warnock fill their plates at a bipartisan barbecue lunch Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 23, 2021 at 5:50pm

Dale Thornton sounds happier than you’d expect for a man who got 30 minutes of sleep last night, having spent most of it standing in the rain.

“I’m honored … to come up here and be a part of this,” he said.

“This” is the Senate’s annual bipartisan barbecue lunch, a tradition started a little over a decade ago by retired Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, and now continuing under the sponsorship of two Democrats (Chris Coons of Delaware and Raphael Warnock of Georgia) and two Republicans (Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Roy Blunt of Missouri).

Along with fellow pitmaster Bubba Latimer and a crew of colleagues, Thornton started smoking the meats for Thursday’s lunch around 4 p.m. Wednesday, tending the hardwood fires throughout the damp and windy night. “We’re still partially wet,” Thornton said.

This was the 11th time Thornton, of South 40 Smokehouse in Marietta, Ga., trekked up to D.C. to cook slow and low for senators and their staff. After a COVID-caused pause last year, Thornton recruited some help from his buddy Latimer of Jasper, Ga.’s Bub-Ba-Q. Along with their team, they prepared more than 400 pounds of brisket, pulled pork and St. Louis ribs, plus heaps upon heaps of sides like mac ’n’ cheese and baked beans.

All of those calories were consumed for a noble cause: sating the Senate’s hunger for a little comity.

“Johnny started doing this a little over a decade ago, when the Senate was getting kind of hinky — people were getting mad at each other, there was not a lot of understanding,” said Coons. “And I’d say we’re back into a place where we’re pretty divided.”

If anything, Coons was downplaying the grim state of affairs, as Democrats and Republicans continue to play chicken on raising the debt limit, risking a catastrophic default of the nation’s credit if neither side blinks — all for the possibility of a small partisan boost in the next election. On top of that, Congress is facing yet another potential government shutdown, negotiations on police reform collapsed Wednesday, a sizable chunk of the GOP still refuses to acknowledge the validity of last year’s election and the coronavirus continues to ravage unvaccinated Americans. Asking pulled pork to pull the Senate together to deal with all that seems like a tall order.

The pandemic has hurt the food service industry harder than some other sectors, as Thornton noted while lauding Latimer for making the trip. “At a time where they’re extremely busy with three restaurants, and all the challenges that are going on today in the market — sourcing a product and labor — they still dropped everything that they were doing to come and be a part of this.”

If sharing some sweet tea can sweeten bipartisan deal-making, restaurateurs like Thornton and Latimer may benefit. Congress created a Restaurant Revitalization Fund in March as part of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package that not a single Republican supported, but its $28.6 billion allocation practically ran dry overnight after 278,000 eateries asked for more than $72 billion in relief. A bill to replenish the fund has attracted bipartisan support in both chambers, including 40 Senate co-sponsors, but Congress is prioritizing other issues, including averting a government shutdown, raising the debt ceiling, and passing the multitrillion-dollar infrastructure and social spending bills.

‘Barbecue isn’t magic’

Even though they sat on opposite sides of the aisle, Coons called Isakson “a great mentor and ultimately a great friend.” Conversations with Republicans over heaps of meat tenderized by gently rendered fat, Coons said, helped grease the wheels for cross-party collaboration.

When the tradition started, leaders in both parties looked at it leerily. “Harry Reid bitched about it,” Isakson told CQ Roll Call in 2019, adding that Mitch McConnell worried the barbecue was a precursor to a leadership challenge. This year, Coons thanked Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and McConnell for clearing the schedule for the event.

The barbecue lunch is hardly the only bipartisan social event on the congressional calendar. Next Wednesday, the two parties will take to Nationals Park for the Congressional Baseball Game, and earlier that same day members will hit the pavement together for ACLI’s Capital Challenge, a 3-mile road race. A few hours before Thornton and Latimer started laying out trays of pulled pork and brisket, the House Modernization Committee held a hearing titled “Pathways to Success: How Practicing Civility, Collaboration, and Leadership Can Empower Members of Congress.” Wednesday night, the Congressional Softball Game held a reception for the breast cancer charity’s sponsors and participants. Every session, there are countless codels, meet and greets, ceremonies and parties on Joe Manchin’s boat offering members the opportunity to make friends across the aisle.

As with all those, the luncheon’s organizers say this event can help bridge the gulf between the two parties.

“Barbecue isn’t magic, it’s good food,” said Coons. “We’ve got senators who aren’t talking to each other, at all, about anything. And so, if you have lunch together once, it might begin some movement toward the conversations that we need to have. … If we don’t make some efforts toward bridging some of the divides we have here, we won’t make real progress together.”

But the Senate’s divides reflect the nation as a whole, driven mostly by the Republican Party’s steady shift rightward over the past half-century. (The organizers cannot even fully agree on the bewitching qualities of meat cooked slow and low — “I understand the magic of barbeque is unlimited,” Graham said in a press release.)

Coons said Isakson had only one rule for the barbecues: “Sit at a table with somebody you don’t know and have a conversation you haven’t had, whether it’s about family or sports or travel or what you’re hoping to get done,” he said. “But don’t just sit, you know, D’s at this table, R’s at that table — mix it up.”

One of Coons’ co-hosts broke that rule Thursday. While Democrats and the GOP intermingled at most of the tables of six, Graham sat down for his meal with five other Republicans.

Democrats and Republicans can like each other, even count the other side as some of their best friends, like Coons and Isakson, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be any more likely to work with one another on laws, said Frances Lee, a political scientist at Princeton University.

“Congress is both a representative and lawmaking institution,” said Lee. “It’s supposed to represent us, it’s supposed to make it as though the people were present, deliberating about issues. And, of course, the American people are deeply divided.”

So long as the nation remains far apart politically — a trend fueled by geographic sorting, the rise of partisan media on cable and the internet, and mainstream media feeding the politically obsessed subset of its audience a daily diet of partisan drama — can any meal, no matter how tangy, smoky and sweet, really make a difference?

For their part, Thursday’s pitmasters believe in good food’s ability to unite folks.  

“Barbecue, it’s family, it’s a community that comes together,” said Latimer. “Breaking bread with barbecue. Everybody can sit down and associate with it.”

But not just any kind of grub will do. Could a buffet of vegan treats similarly bring both parties to the table?

“I don’t think that’s going to work,” Latimer said.