Weekly lunches give senators a chance air their differences

It’s said Congress is like a big high school, and that truth is no more evident than the weekly Senate lunches.

Senators wait in a buffet line for their food and then sit with their cliques at the same tables every week. The top lunch table in the room is taken by leadership, with conference and committee chairmen in the next few rows.

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Other members stake out their territory at the weekly lunches — which have been held for decades — based on ideology, friendships or common interests.

Former Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) said he usually sat at a table with other centrists in the back of the Democrats’ lunch.

“I’d sit back there because they were people I came in with or concerns of their state were similar to mine, but there were occasions I’d sit at a different table,” he said.

He would move around from time to time, too.

“I used drive [Sen.] Dianne Feinstein [D-Calif.] crazy because I always ate the chocolate cake when I sat at her table and I ate it with great relish,” Bayh, who served two terms, told The Hill. “She was trying to exert more dietary restraint.”

Loud arguments have been known to break out at the lunches.

“When I was there, there were some considerable shouting matches. Things got intense between senators,” said former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who writes a column for The Hill.

“There were some exchanges that were quite personal but I don’t want to get specific on what they were on.”

Gregg, who served two terms in the Senate, recalled shouting matches when Republicans changed their seniority rules and implemented term limits on committee chairmen.

The change was “intensely debated” by then-Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who fought to keep the status quo.

The lunches take place every Tuesday, with Democrats in a room on one side of the chamber and Republicans in a room on the other. It’s a time for each party to meet behind closed doors and air their differences without being watched by staff or press.

Jim Manley, a former senior aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said those discussions were necessary for the party to keep the peace in public.

“The idea is that you need that mechanism to allow folks to air out their differences because without, it’s a recipe for disaster. If you don’t air out in the privacy of the caucus, it’s bound to give leader trouble,” he said.

Aides and members are reluctant to talk about who fought with whom or who sat with whom at the lunches, which represent one of the longest-running rituals in the Senate.

After all, the point of the lunches is for lawmakers to feel as if what happens in the lunch stays in the lunch.

Gregg did describe members as creatures of habit who sat at the same spot at the same round tables week after week.

“Members sit in the same place at each lunch — same table, some spot,” he said, before insisting that he liked to move around.

The food is served from 12:30 until 1 p.m. A GOP aide said of the Republican lunch that it’s a “standard buffet lunch that always includes fish, chicken and beef options.”

One Tuesday, The Hill spotted asparagus, salad, some kind of stuffed pastry roll and a whip-creamed topped dish being brought out after the senators exited their lunch.

Senators serve themselves, which eliminates the need for servers and the possibility of Mitt Romney-type leak. (A bartender working the fundraiser where the GOP nominee made his infamous “47 percent” remark admitted to illicitly taping Romney.)

After the food is served, the talking begins.

The leadership gets things started, typically followed by committee chairmen.

The talk from leadership tends to focus on the week ahead, on any major issue of the week, with a little bit of fundraising chatter mixed in.

“Once you get past the leadership report, which can be very repetitive but necessary to know what was going on on the floor, then the discussion becomes very animated, very free flowing,” Gregg said. “Sometimes there will be an agenda.”

But there’s no arm-twisting for votes — at least not at lunch.

“More of that is done privately,” Bayh said. “There are people who will stand up and express their opinion on a particular issue, and sometimes it’s not accidental that the people who are called on to speak are expressing a point of view that’s supportive of the majority.”

The Senate lunches date to the mid-20th century.

The Republicans began meeting in the 1940s thanks to Sen. Henry Styles Bridges of New Hampshire, according to the Senate Historian’s office.

The Democrats began their lunches at the same time but didn’t meet as regularly until the 1960s, when Sen. Mike Mansfield of Montana pushed for a weekly meeting.

Outside the lunch rooms is a mad scramble of aides and reporters, each waiting on members to come out: journalists to get their questions in and staff to rush the lawmakers to their next appointments.

After the lunches, the leaders of each respective party hold a press conference outside the chamber. Republicans (in the minority) go first, Democrats go last.

The lunches are mainly for members only but sometimes feature a guest speaker.

President Obama has lunched with both parties, though he joined Republicans on a Thursday instead of a Tuesday. Those Thursday lunches, known as policy lunches, are different. They’re not held as regularly, and the menu is provided on a rotating basis by a senator, who typically uses food from his or her home state.

The lunches also help build friendships between lawmakers, who often find their time scheduled down to the minute.

“Week in, week out, it’s one of the most important things a senator has to participate in,” Manley said.

“I always looked forward to it. It was nice time for some camaraderie,” Bayh said of them.

“There’s a fair amount of dysfunction in Congress today, but there’s a large amount of special people there. That’s the best part of the lunches: the opportunity to spend time with people outside the public eye.”