Chattanooga Times Free Press - Edward Lee Pitts
WASHINGTON — Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said that three months into the 110th Congress his new bipartisan weekly breakfasts are paying dividends in bridging the party divide.
Sen. Alexander began the breakfasts in January along with Sen. Joe Lieberman, Ind.-Conn. Last week 12 senators met at the closed-door Tuesday breakfasts held inside the Capitol.
At last week’s meeting the topic was how to provide health care for every American, but Sen. Alexander said topics at previous meetings have ranged from the war in Iraq and entitlement spending to global competitiveness. Since the meetings began in January, attendance has ranged from a dozen senators to as many as 40, he said.
“We are closer to making a weekly bipartisan breakfast a routine part of the Senate,” Sen. Alexander said. “It is just one more badly needed way to help us work together to solve big issues, which the country wants us to do.” Marshall Wittmann, a spokesman for Sen. Lieberman, said the breakfasts have improved bipartisan communication.
“Most of the settings within the Senate are on a partisan basis,” Mr. Wittmann said. “Senator Lieberman is very confident... that this could become institutionalized as a regular place for senators to meet and discuss issues in a nonpartisan fashion.” On most weeks the lawmakers use the breakfast meetings to offer presentations on topics important to them.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have agreed to lead a session in May, Sen. Alexander said.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., is one of the Democrats who regularly makes the meetings.
“These breakfasts are a good opportunity to discuss important issues of the day in a relaxed setting, and to allow senators to continue developing friendships and better working relationships,” Sen. Bingaman said.
Traditionally each week Republican senators and Democratic senators meet separately for several strategy sessions over lunch.
“Those meetings often degenerate into what can we do to the other party. ... There are so many forces that push senators toward partisanship and toward playing political games that we need more forces pushing in the direction of working together and working on big issues,” Sen. Alexander said.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who has attended most of the breakfasts, said he appreciates that the meetings are just for the senators and not their staffs.
“We can always get a lot more done when it is just us in the room than when we are being coached,” Sen. Isakson said.
Sen. Alexander said a few more Republicans than Democrats have made the meetings and more veteran senators are attending than new lawmakers.
“Some of senators who come more frequently are ones who value the Senate as an institution,” he said. “Those who have been around awhile seem to value it most.” But freshman Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said he has been to several of the breakfasts.
“There are a lot of different demands that take place during that hour on Tuesday morning, but I applaud Lamar’s efforts,” Sen. Corker said. “I think it is very healthy, and we need to see more of that.”