That's One Successful Negotiation, Medium Rare

The Senate Dining Room may be taken over by Restaurant Associates, which runs the House dining facilities.
The Senate Dining Room may be taken over by Restaurant Associates, which runs the House dining facilities. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Mary Ann Akers And Paul Kane
Thursday, July 10, 2008

The famed House taco salad, which draws hungry patrons from both sides of the Capitol every Wednesday, may soon be available on the Senate side of the complex.

After weeks of unexpected objections, House Republicans finally agreed yesterday evening to a carefully crafted deal that would allow Restaurant Associates, the private contractor that has run House eating establishments since the 1980s, to take over the troubled Senate dining facilities.

After months of negotiation, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) last month overcame Democratic opposition to the privatization of the famed Senate Dining Room and the chamber's other eateries, persuading colleagues to approve the deal. The Senate's food service operation has lost $18 million since 1993; it has turned a profit seven times in the last 44 years and is on the verge of losing $2 million in fiscal 2008.

The plan, approved unanimously, offers current Senate food service workers buyout packages worth as much as $25,000 for the longest-tenured staff members, if they don't want to work for Restaurant Associates. Employees who sign on with the contractor would receive guarantees of their current salaries and would be allowed to maintain their federal benefits. New hires would not receive such benefits.

Because the deal was in a piece of legislation, it required House approval. Senate lawmakers assumed that was a mere formality; long-standing tradition dictates that one chamber does not interfere with the internal affairs of the other.

But House Republicans objected to the benefits package, contending that it sets a precedent by allowing workers to receive federal benefits while working for a private contractor. The bill stalled for a time, with another deadline approaching later this month.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) wants to pass the restaurant plan without debate so the House will not waste precious floor time on an issue that has nothing to do with that chamber, according to lawmakers and aides.

Sen. Robert F. Bennett (Utah), ranking Republican on the Rules and Administration Committee, was dispatched yesterday to meet with Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers (Mich.), his GOP counterpart on the House Administration Committee.

By day's end, Feinstein was able to declare victory.

"Without passage of this bill, we stood to lose $2 million or more a year in taxpayer funds. Thankfully, the House Republican leadership realized the importance of this effort and agreed to let this bill move forward," said Howard Gantman, Feinstein's staff director on the Senate Rules Committee.

Salley Collins, a spokeswoman for Ehlers, the ranking Republican on the committee, said before the agreement that her boss was not trying to block the deal but wanted to be assured of its details.

"The ranking member's objective is to assist, not deter, the privatization effort," she said.

Class of '94 Bites Back

The unusually frank comments from freshman Rep. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) about his own party needing to "clean house" -- starting with members of the historic Class of 1994 -- are rubbing his GOP colleagues the wrong way. Members of the congressional class that ended a 40-year Democratic reign in the House are especially peeved.

Heller's offense was telling the Las Vegas Review Journal: "I'm of the position that we really need to clean house in this Republican Party, and I think the next couple of election cycles are going to do that." Taking special aim at the '94 GOP freshman class, Heller said, "It's an old mantra: They came to change Washington, and Washington changed them."

GOP colleagues were not impressed with his notion of tough love, especially Rep. Zach Wamp (Tenn.), the only member of the '94 class who contributed money -- $2,000 -- to Heller's reelection campaign this year.

"The people of Tennessee are glad that what is said in Nevada stays in Nevada," Wamp told On the Hill.

Another member of the class, Rep. Steven C. LaTourette (Ohio), said the Nevada freshman's comments "make me think they might have started storing radioactive waste in Yucca Mountain or had an escape from Area 51. The fact is, the Class of '94 created the longest-serving Republican majority in recent history, and we didn't lose it until Dean showed up."

Ouch! LaTourette, who is known for his biting humor, insisted he was only joking.

Rep. Phil English (Pa.), another proud lawmaker elected 14 years ago, said: "People forget that the insurgent GOP Class of 1994 reformed welfare, cut taxes and moved the center of gravity in American politics right. Reform advocates should be wary that a 'change election' could empower big-government advocates to embrace a radical program that will have lasting fallout."

Cue Apology

Our apologies to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and his acting career. He does indeed appear in the credits for "The Dark Knight," despite what we said here last week about his cameo in the upcoming Batman flick premiering in his home town of Montpelier, Vt.

Leahy is officially known in the credits as "Gentleman at Party." That's the gentleman who is whisked away from a dinner party by the Joker's henchmen, as seen in the trailer.

As Roll Call reported yesterday, Leahy tells the Joker before being hauled away: "We're not intimidated by you thugs." Asked yesterday whether "Gentleman" survives, the senator looked around and whispered: "He does." has a link to a full roster of the Judiciary chairman's on-screen appearances, which includes his other cameos in Batman movies and, oddly, his appearances on talk shows such as "Meet the Press."

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