Lawrence Weiner and a friend were finishing lunch Friday at a Japanese restaurant in Bethesda. It is an unpretentious place, with plastic tempura and sushi in the window and a kimono on the wall.

Weiner looked up and recognized a man in a beige suit standing a few feet away, waiting patiently for the salad bar.

"Is that Senator Inouye?" he said. The Democrat from Hawaii said with a smile that he was having lunch.

As Sen. Daniel K. Inouye addressed himself to the salad bar, Weiner and his friend began to share their views on the issues of the day. Inouye alternated between polite acknowledgment of his interlocutors and the assembly of his salad. Weiner and his friend loudly decried the country's increasingly stark ideological divides, citing the debate over presidential adviser Karl Rove's comments about the liberal response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

They aired the notion that political conservatives seek to tar their opponents as unpatriotic. Inouye, now holding his salad and preparing to step toward his table, agreed. "It's insulting," he said.

Weiner and his friend -- the latter preferred not to have his name in the paper -- turned quickly to the Supreme Court's decision Wednesday that affirmed the right of local governments to force people to sell their property for redevelopment if officials decide it would benefit the public. Inouye affirmed that something needed to be done to counter the court's action, perhaps "by law."

That seemed to satisfy Weiner and his friend. Away went the senator, salad accomplished.

It was a Washington moment. All over America, people are debating the meaning of Rove's comments and the impact of the court's ruling. Here, more than most places, opportunities arise for the unconnected to voice their views to the powerful.

For Weiner and his friend, the encounter was a rare one. Inouye, of course, is frequently accosted by people with an observation in need of a senator's ear. "It happens all the time," he said.

"It happens all the time," Sen. Daniel K. Inouye says of people engaging him in conversation.