With the demands of reelection campaigns and family life in their state, senators are often disconnected from their colleagues. Few find time to catch up during committee meetings and floor votes, making the exclusive lunches a time for more than just media ambushes.
Reporters fall all over themselves, sometimes literally, to get the spontaneous quote they need. One overzealous reporter was so pleased to see Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) passing by that he tripped over the velvet rope to lunge at Nelson, who raised both hands in mock fear.
Still, the senators look forward to Tuesdays as a chance to shoot the breeze.
“The food’s not bad,” said Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.). “We get to chat.” Of course, she added, “if you chat too loud with your tablemates, you do get reprimanded.”
Susan Collins (R-Maine) said the vibe is no different at the GOP lunches.
“Yes, we do” have fun on Tuesdays, Collins said with a sly smile. “We comment on what each other’s eating, and occasionally we’ll make funny comments on the speaker,” who more often than not is Vice President Cheney.
As it turns out, Cheney is a man of few words, says an aide who has attended the lunch. “The vice president doesn’t say too much,” the aide said. “He sits back and listens.”
Other luncheon regulars include administration-inspired guests such as Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman; Matt Kirk, special assistant to the president for legislative affairs; or a Cabinet secretary.
High-powered lawmakers’ indulging their inner seventh-graders hardly seems inappropriate, considering the environment. The Tuesday lunches are usually attended by every member of the party conferences, providing them an open forum to voice concerns and strategize. By 12:30 p.m., there are often as many as five stern Capitol Police officers between the Republicans’ Mansfield Room or the Democrats’ LBJ Room and the pesky press corps.
On a recent Tuesday, staffers were seen trooping in and out of the two lunchrooms, carrying poster boards with the party talking points on the week’s hot topic of Social Security. The Republican and Democratic poster boards looked nearly identical, down to the blue and coral colors of the flow arrows, which may be the policy-lunch equivalent of showing up at the prom in the same dresses.
“It’s a great way for people to say whatever’s on their mind,” said Norm Coleman (R-Minn.). “A little bit of business, a little bit of pleasure.” And Coleman should know, as he also attends a Wednesday-afternoon meal with the Republican Conference chairman and breaks bread Thursday afternoons with a small group of Senate conservatives.
Former Senate Majority Leader Robert Taft Sr. of Ohio, whose presidential grandfather had a famous gastronomic affinity, conceived the original version of policy lunches. Senators from both parties dined and planned on their own until, on Jan. 17, 1956, Sen. Styles Bridges (R-N.H.) held the first Republican policy lunch that the whole conference attended.
“They brought in people from the Eisenhower administration to talk to them,” Associate Senate Historian Donald Ritchie said. “A pep rally for Republicans in the minority.”
Meanwhile, Democrats continued to meet in small groups in the secretary of the Senate’s office under their majority leader, Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas. Every now and then a freshman senator named John F. Kennedy came to lunch, but the entire Democratic Conference was not invited until the 1960s.
The Tuesday lunches’ modern incarnation features much higher security. That is in part to keep order between the distinguished diners and the deadline-addicted press, who often pounce on senators and fire as many questions as possible until the lunchroom entrance is officially sealed.
“Lately there haven’t been any altercations,” said Capitol Police Sgt. Contricia Sellers, who helps coordinate the guards at the Mansfield and LBJ room doors. “The only problem is when they get overrun with staff who don’t obey the rules. … It’s very tight, very difficult, but we try to do the best we can.”
The likelihood of police intervention depends largely on the size of the media gaggle. Officers didn’t bat an eye one Tuesday when a reporter leaped past the metal detectors to chat up Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who greeted him with a cheery “Hi, friend! You light up my life.”
The closest any reporter gets to Cheney, on the other hand, was one female reporter’s quiet exultation as a thicket of Secret Service swooped past her.
“He smirked at me,” she said about the vice president. Her co-workers teased her for being “the only reporter who’s ever smiled at him.”
Hoopla aside, the biggest question about Tuesday lunches has no easy answer. Is the food any good? Senators seemed reluctant to give the menu anything but praise, perhaps out of a desire to make no enemies in the Senate Dining Room, which caters the lunches.
The menu varies every week and is kept under wraps by both party leaders’ offices. One recent Tuesday, the Republicans dug into buttery crawfish etouffee; a week later, the Democrats were caught noshing on simple grilled salmon.
“It’s a lot of calories and a lot of content,” said Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.). “There’s no hierarchy in the seating,” as opposed to committee meeting structure, which lets legislators choose with whom they want to schmooze.
The senatorial lunches don’t come cheap, though, and neither does T-bone steak. Senators must pay $20 each to attend a Tuesday lunch.
“Some people grumble about the price,” said freshman John Thune (R-S.D). George Allen (R-Va.) said he urged colleagues to cover willingly their own tabs, though it is not publicly known when senators agreed to self-finance their Tuesdays.
After all, Capitol power lunches can run in the triple digits, and, as Ritchie said: “Well, somebody’s got to pay for it.”
The lunches’ unity and candor are made possible by the presence of precious few outsiders. Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said, “It’s a much tighter-knit caucus” under Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), with a maximum of three or four staffers allowed in the Mansfield Room.
The lucky guests who do see senators loosen up “when they’re not on display,” Ritchie said, “tend to be squeezed up against a wall.”
As for what’s on the agenda, the color-coded poster boards are as specific as it gets. Both the majority and minority leaders give their policy meals the “Fight Club” treatment: The first rule of the Tuesday lunch is the same as the motto of Reid’s Las Vegas: “What happens here stays here.”
For many senators, the lunches take a little getting used to. Just ask freshman Mel Martinez (R-Fla.).
“One of the big differences between being a Cabinet member and being a senator is the collegiality,” Martinez said. “The culture of the reporters hanging out, I’m just beginning to get an understanding of it.”
Martinez looked out at the typical media mob scene near the Ohio clock, a melee of tape recorders and jostling high heels.
“So here we are — your prey,” he said.