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Senate’s Secret Santas make their rounds

By Ann Gerhart,

Lumps of coal were big. And there was an empty popcorn box, which may, a source said, have been re-gifted.

Those were among the more self-aware gifts swapped Monday night, when the U.S. Senate added a Secret Santa clause to its tradition of peculiar protocols and observations.

Between votes on ambassador confirmations, 39 Democrats and 22 Republican senators ducked into the Mansfield Room and poked through large piles of wrapped presents, looking for their name tags.

Sen. Chuck Schumer was so delighted with his carved-coal donkey and elephant figurines that he showed them off to everybody he ran into. He quickly figured out who his Secret Santa was: The riddle with the five-inch statues said, “With an eight percent approval rating, both Democrats and Republicans in Congress deserve to have coal in their stocking this year. Lucky for us, my state has more than enough to go around.”

Thank you, Joe Manchin, from the great state of West Virginia!

“It was pretty funny,” said Manchin in a phone interview, “seeing all these grown men and women — U.S. senators — looking for their gifts. It was a really neat little thing.”

The onetime bipartisan dinner party is a relic, and the “supercommittee” met its own supercollider and blew to bits. The Date Night plan for Dems to sit with R’s at the State of the Union led to nobody really hooking up. And so Al Franken, who is Jewish but clearly ecumenical, came up with the Secret Santa party in a last grasp for glad tidings and cooperative spirit before 2011 is nothing but a bitter memory of partisan rancor.

And so it came to pass that 90 minutes of bipartisan revels began.

“Every year we look at videos of our kids opening their gifts,” said Franken, the Minnesota Democrat who organized the affair with Mike Johanns, Republican of Nebraska. Eggnog, cookies and fruitcake were served, “and this reminded me of that.”

Manchin, too, got three lumps of coal — labeled “clean coal,” “critical mineral” and “Does this look green to you?” Plus a pair of hiking socks and a six-pack of Snow Day beer, with a note that said, “Basically in my state, when things are cold, there are two ways to keep warm.” He figured out fast enough that the Colorado senator who came up with that grab bag was his workout buddy, Mark Udall.

Schumer laid a bottle of original buffalo wing sauce from the Anchor Bar, home of this essential part of the food pyramid, on Johanns. He was awed.

“I don’t know if I will even ever open this,” Johanns was heard to say. “I just may display it.”

Senators drew names in November and were ordered to keep to a strict $10 limit on the gifts. Kent Conrad, a member of the stumped supercommittee of senators and House members, presented the empty popcorn box to fellow Democrat Mary Landieu of Louisiana, although a spy said Dick Durbin’s name still was on the box. “Look, I think we all have to tighten our belts,” given the European debt crisis, Conrad said, according an aide granted anonymity because he was not certified in sleigh-guiding.

One of Conrad’s partners in attempted debt-reduction, John Kerry, did not seem to show similar restraint. The Massachusetts Democrat gave Sen. Mario Rubio (R-Fla.) a very nice treasure, a Red Sox jersey signed by Luis Tiant, the great Cuban American Sox pitcher.

New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, who has a toddler, got a thoughtful “unbreakable Christmas ornament” from an unnamed admirer, although reporter Trish Turner of Fox News figured out that the red and white ball came from Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions. Franken’s fellow Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar got milk chocolate from Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown. And Democrat Kay Hagan of North Carolina gave Moravian sugar cake and cookies to Republican Rob Portman of Ohio.

Franken gave a make-it-yourself kit of Mahnomin porridge, a Minnesota delicacy made with wild rice, to Thad Cochran, Republican of Mississippi. And he received a paperback copy of Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Unaccustomed Earth” from Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the Democrat turned independent.

“It was all festive and collegial, and that was the point,” Franken said. Neither Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid nor Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had joined in the merriment.

Reid had “kind of kiddingly been playing Scrooge as my foil,” Franken said. But he noted that Democrats clapped during Tuesday’s weekly caucus when Reid mentioned the party by saying, “Thank God Secret Santa is over.”

Asked if he thought the giving would lead to giving, as in giving an inch, on the battles over tax cuts and unemployment benefits extensions, Franken said, “It certainly doesn’t hurt. I think it helps” to have senators mingle.

Added Manchin: “Look, you know we got 61 senators. So we broke the filibuster!”

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