Two senators, independent Democrat Joe Lieberman and Republican Lamar Alexander, have planned an experiment aimed at getting more senators to be civil to each other and to unite on some legislative solutions.
The rough idea hatched after the Nov. 7 elections showed that many voters were upset with gridlock and bickering in Washington.
Their plan in brief: hold weekly breakfasts for senators only with the bold hope over time for much closer relationships between legislators of opposing parties, less arguing and fewer delays in passing bills. The meeting time would allow both for personal sharing and a business period for exchanging ideas on legislation.
Alexander, R-Tenn., and Lieberman, Independent Democrat from Connecticut, recently co-signed a letter to all senators inviting them to the every-Tuesday breakfasts. Some conservative and liberal senators already have said they will attend, Alexander said, and he is working on more commitments.
“It’s easier to work together if you know one another better,” Alexander said in an interview. “That’s not brain surgery to figure that out.”
The breakfast group won’t take positions on any bills. Senators, however, would be free to form coalitions on causes outside of the weekly gatherings.
Riding together on the Capitol subway to the Senate chamber one post-election day, Alexander and Lieberman found they shared similar approaches for reducing the number of strained debates and inaction on key bills. Then they began working with members of their respective parties to get the breakfast gatherings on many senators’ Tuesday schedules starting Jan. 9 and then during every week of Washington sessions.
Alexander’s analysis of the Nov. 7 elections, when Republicans lost majority control of the House and the Senate, was that voters were upset about the conduct of business in Washington.
“Voters would prefer that we act like grownups and work on big issues and not play partisan, kindergarten games,” he said.
The weekly breakfasts — for senators only, no aides, no news media — should foster better relationships among attendees, Alexander said. Between eating and personal conversations, the group likely will listen to a series of committee chairmen and senior Republican members describing upcoming major bills and then save time so each might talk briefly about his or her current work, Alexander said.
Lieberman, who ran as an Independent after losing the Democratic primary, said on the “Meet the Press” TV program last month that he won re-election in part by promising voters to “put progress and patriotism ahead of partisanship and polarization. If we fall back in a partisan conflict, Democrats are going to be rejected by the public next time just like Republicans were this time.”
Alexander said he and Lieberman chose breakfasts because senators generally are required to attend party-related legislative meetings at lunchtime and the Senate’s schedule for the last daily vote is not predictable.
In the Senate, debate rules allow opponents to delay bills for long periods unless the proponents have 60 or more supporters among the 100 senators. Democrats next year will control 51 of the 100 Senate seats.
So, Alexander said, more cooperation can lead to passing more solutions.
“I have an idea that this (weekly breakfasts) will settle in to be a regular institution, but we’ll see. The real test may be how many show up at the third breakfast.”