Freshman senators: Let’s do lunch

Freshman senators appalled by the Senate’s rank partisanship have begun holding weekly Thursday lunches to improve relationships in the chamber.

But their efforts to create a more friendly atmosphere have sometimes gotten them into trouble with senior colleagues who aren’t fond of letting party secrets slip.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) sparked a mini-uproar recently when he invited freshman Republican Sen. Mark Kirk (Ill.) to a Democratic strategy session where Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) planned to roll out one of his draft budget plans.

Conrad was not amused.

Manchin “took me to their budget rollout,” Kirk said. “I stayed for about four minutes and then Conrad said, ‘This is for Democrats only.’”

A Democratic source described Conrad as “furious.”

Kirk says he wasn’t trying to spy, just trying to break up the practice of Democrats and Republicans having lunch exclusively with members of their own parties on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

 “We’re just trying to break the partisan lock on this place,” Kirk said.

Manchin and Kirk have begun holding off-the-record meetings with other junior colleagues such as Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) to improve relationships.

More senior lawmakers have also attended, such as Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), according to Kirk.

“Manchin and I have lunch with other members now every Thursday,” said Kirk. “We’re trying to break the all-Republican, all-Democratic lunches up.”

Manchin and Kirk reason that Democrats and Republicans will be more likely to cooperate on major policy challenges, such as the federal deficit, if they socialize more often.

All senators are invited to attend the weekly freshman lunches, which are strictly off the record and off-limits to staff.

“Tell us how your life is,” Kirk said. “Tell us about your wife, your kids, the big problems in your state, anything.”

The lawmakers have begun meeting in a rarely used dining room across the hallway from the Senate’s main dining room on the first floor of the Capitol.

More senior senators, including Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), also have made attempts to bridge the partisan divide in the Senate.

 Last year, Alexander and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) hosted a wine-and-cheese happy hour at the Capitol after one late-afternoon Monday vote. About 20 senators, including Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), stopped by to nibble on blue cheese and sip pinot noir.

The Senate has a long history of holding bipartisan social events, but Alexander told The Hill last year that such gatherings have become increasingly infrequent.

As bipartisan social events in the Capitol have died out, partisan message votes have become more frequent. The election is more than 17 months away, but leaders are already jockeying for votes.

Next week the Senate will vote on budget plans offered by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and President Obama. Neither is expected to come close to passing. Instead, the goal is to put lawmakers on record so they can be attacked in the next campaign.