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 ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinOvernight Energy: EPA aims to work more closely with industry Overnight Finance: Lawmakers grill Equifax chief over hack | Wells Fargo CEO defends bank's progress | Trump jokes Puerto Rico threw budget 'out of whack' | Mortgage tax fight tests industry clout Lawmakers try again on miners’ pension bill MORE (D-W.Va.) sparked a mini-uproar recently when he invited freshman Republican Sen. Mark KirkMark KirkGiffords, Scalise highlight party differences on guns Stale, misguided, divisive: minimum wage can't win elections Immigration critics find their champion in Trump MORE (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 CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsThis week: Congress gets ball rolling on tax reform Lift the Jones Act and similar restrictions for humanitarian crises Overnight Tech: White House unveils tech education initiative | Bannon reportedly sought to spy on Facebook | Uber CEO to appeal London ban | John Oliver rips AT&T-Time Warner merger MORE (D-Del.), Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanOvernight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open Reddit hires first lobbyists Senate panel approves bill compelling researchers to ‘hack’ DHS MORE (R-Ohio) and Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetAmeriCorps hurricane heroes deserve a reward — don’t tax it Joe Buck defends 'nonviolent protests' at NFL games Patriotism is no defense for Trump’s attacks on black athletes MORE (D-Colo.) to improve relationships.

More senior lawmakers have also attended, such as Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsGun proposal picks up GOP support Giffords, Scalise highlight party differences on guns Agricultural trade demands investment in MAP and FMD MORE (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 AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderChildren’s health-care bill faces new obstacles Overnight Health Care: Schumer calls for tying ObamaCare fix to children's health insurance | Puerto Rico's water woes worsen | Dems plead for nursing home residents' right to sue Schumer calls for attaching ObamaCare fix to children's health insurance MORE (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 SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerOvernight Health Care: Schumer calls for tying ObamaCare fix to children's health insurance | Puerto Rico's water woes worsen | Dems plead for nursing home residents' right to sue Crying on TV doesn't qualify Kimmel to set nation's gun agenda Trump knocks ‘fake’ news coverage of his trip to Puerto Rico MORE (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 ReidHarry ReidChris Murphy’s profile rises with gun tragedies Republicans are headed for a disappointing end to their year in power Obama's HHS secretary could testify in Menendez trial MORE (D-Nev.) and Republican Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGun proposal picks up GOP support Children’s health-care bill faces new obstacles Dems see Trump as potential ally on gun reform MORE (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 RyanPaul RyanThe Hill Interview: Budget Chair Black sticks around for now Gun proposal picks up GOP support GOP lawmaker Tim Murphy to retire at end of term MORE (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.