By LAURIE KELLMAN
Friday, December 8, 2006 4:52 PM
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The first thing the new, Democratic-led Senate will do next year is meet in a closed "bipartisan caucus" to help set a more pleasant tone than the relentless backbiting of the Congress now heading home, party leaders said Friday.
Far from lawmakers conducting business in secret -- as open-government advocates warn -- the meeting would serve only to sweep away grudges and smooth the way for more action, the leaders said.
"We won't always agree but can sit down, side by side, and forge consensus on the issues important to the American people," incoming Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said in a joint statement with his Republican counterpart, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
McConnell said, "Republicans intend to be as cooperative as possible to help the Senate get off to a good start next year."
Spokesmen for the lawmakers said the meeting would not amount to a closed session of the Senate under the chamber's rules.
However, any meeting of 100 senators with rules of any kind is by definition a meeting of the Senate, said Brian Darling, director of Senate relations for The Heritage Foundation.
"It would be a de facto meeting of the Senate and although they want to call it something else, it is," Darling said.
"To set up something and to plan something between the leaders is very unusual and should be subject to open government rules," he added. "Their intentions are good, but the results of what they're doing will be not good for the American people."
The Jan. 4 meeting, to be held in the hours before the new Democratic majority formally opens the 110th Congress, will take place in the Old Senate Chamber. It would be the first meeting of the full Senate in the historic room since President Clinton's 1999 impeachment trial.
The plans were disclosed Friday, as a Congress still under Republican control was being accused by Democrats of being a "do-nothing" institution.
The gathering could establish a precedent expanding the kinds of "executive sessions" that up to now have been relatively rare.
Still, McConnell spokesman Don Stewart likened the proposal to closed weekly policy lunches that the Republican and Democratic caucuses hold separately.
"We won't be transacting legislative business," Stewart said.
The Senate met in private until 1794 in the belief that its role providing counsel to the executive branch compelled closed proceedings.
Since 1929, the Senate has held 54 closed sessions, generally for reasons of national security, according to a Sept. 27 report of the Congressional Research Service. Democrats last year forced a closed session of the Senate to discuss Iraq war intelligence.
Closed sessions of the Senate are held periodically to discuss specific, sensitive business, such as impeachment deliberations, matters of national security and sensitive communications from the president, according to the report by the Congressional Research Service.
Members and staff who attend the meetings have been prohibited from divulging details, and transcripts have not been published unless the chamber votes to release them.