Lunch a bit confusing for senators on Day 1

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) walks into a roomful of lunching Democrats.

This isn’t the beginning of a bad joke; just an observation from the first round of weekly policy lunches in the 111th Congress.

As if negotiations for the next stimulus package and a visit from President-elect Obama weren’t enough to complicate the Senate’s Tuesday policy lunches, another factor was thrown into the mix.

Democrats now lunch in the room where Republicans met during the last Congress, and Republicans have set up in the former Democratic dining spot.

The explanation for all this confusion?

A spokesman for Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) says the now-bigger Democratic Conference had to move into the more spacious Mansfield Room for its meetings. The rooms were switched “due to the fact of the number of seats we picked up,” he said.

But judging from the manner in which the Republicans were accidentally bursting into their Democratic counterparts’ lunch meeting and vice versa, one would have thought the Senate decided to ditch its party caucuses and come together as one big, happy legislative family.

Not quite.

Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) said it best, when he initially turned left after getting off the second-floor elevator to head to lunch but then remembered he needed to go right.

“Old habits die hard,” he said to a crowd of onlooking reporters.

Sen. Pat Roberts’s (R-Kan.) swagger provided the most egregious example.

Roberts got off the second-floor elevator, turned to a group of reporters and said, “Do you all want a story? How about that I’m changing parties?” he joked. “I also want my own elevator and a parking space.”

An aide eventually coaxed him away, and the two went striding toward the Senate’s Mansfield Room, where Republicans dined in the 110th Congress but where Democrats will meet this Congress.

Minutes later, Roberts returned to the group of reporters he was joking with — this time a little less confident.

“See, you didn’t believe me,” he said. “I’m going to the other lunch.”

The same was true for Vitter and Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), John Thune (R-S.D.), Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), all of whom had a disoriented look about them while heading for the food.

Shelby grabbed Hatch’s arm as he veered in the wrong direction.

“We’re this way,” he told his colleague, just seconds before Thune asked anyone who would listen, “Are we this way?”

Sens. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) and George Voinovich (R-Ohio) both benefited from careful guidance from reporters.

“Senator, I think you’re over here,” a reporter told a wayward Bond while interviewing him on the fly.

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) was so concentrated on a cell phone conversation when he got off the elevator that several people waved their hands in front of him to get his attention before he got any farther toward the Democrats’ lunch.

He then started walking toward the GOP lunch, right alongside Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), who nearly crashed the dueling lunch before being flagged down.

Sen. Bob Bennett’s (R-Utah) timing was probably the best. He rushed past the hordes of people in front of the Democratic lunch — all of them waiting for Obama’s arrival — just before the president-elect arrived. Obama went by in a flash and disappeared into the Democrats’ lunch.

A bashful Bennett subsequently sneaked by, stating the obvious.

“I walked into the wrong lunch,” Bennett said with a shrug.