Prodded by two junior members, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate have invited newly elected members of that body to spend three days next week getting to know each other and discussing how to overcome the bitter partisanship that has blocked action on so many issues the past two years.
The orientation program for the nine new senators elected this past Tuesday has been recast and expanded this year to emphasize "how to work across party lines," said Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), who instigated the change along with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). Alexander, elected in 2002, and Carper, who came to the Senate two years earlier, said they have been frustrated by the gridlock on Capitol Hill. They hope to begin changing the environment "from Day One" by introducing the new members and their families to each other, "before they get pulled into their party caucuses and start exchanging blows," as Carper put it.
Both former governors, their model is the kind of bipartisanship they said has made the National Governors Association (NGA) an effective force in promoting welfare reform, education reform and other causes. For years, the NGA has sponsored biennial training sessions in which newly elected governors are taught the tools of the trade by current and former governors of both parties.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) "both jumped at the idea" when it was offered to them in September, Alexander said. The program, which begins next Sunday and continues until Nov. 17, is being run by Emily Reynolds, Frist's appointee as secretary of the Senate.
Twenty sitting senators have agreed to serve as "faculty" for sessions that will cover such topics as office management, ethics, and the balancing of official and family responsibilities. A pair of senators from opposite sides of the aisle will lead each discussion. Carper and Alexander will run a breakfast roundtable on "how to bridge the partisan divide and legislate across party lines."
The orientation program deliberately does not include any policy debates, Alexander said, but rather is focused on "what it takes for the Senate to function as an institution and fulfill its constitutional role."
To emphasize that perspective, the opening session next Sunday afternoon, will be held in the Old Senate Chamber, a small ceremonial room steeped in tradition, and the first speaker will be Senate historian Richard A. Baker. After a tour of the current Senate chamber led by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the Senate president pro tempore, Frist and Daschle will be hosts of a dinner for the senators and their spouses in the Lyndon B. Johnson Room of the Capitol. Brian Lamb, the founder and head of C-SPAN, will speak at the dinner.
The new orientation program is an outgrowth of occasional breakfast meetings Carper and Alexander began holding last year with other former governors, state and local officials. Two of the regulars, Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), a former governor, and Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), a former attorney general, have joined Carper and Alexander as the steering committee for the orientation sessions.
Carper said that informal bonding among the new members is as important a goal as the more structured discussions about the job. He recalled going to a "new governors' school" with Marc Racicot of Montana, adding, "We formed a friendship that has survived" despite the partisan strains of Racicot becoming chairman of the Republican National Committee and head of President Bush's reelection campaign and Carper taking on a prominent role in the Democratic Leadership Council.
Carper said his hope is that the new members and their spouses will all stay in the same hotel during orientation. "I'd like them to have rooms on the same floor," he said, and -- joking -- "share the same bathroom."
Alexander said that a greater emphasis on institutional cohesion and cross-party communication is needed "because of all the external forces that pull us apart -- outside issue groups with their scorecards, 24-hour news, and the fight for control that has spilled over from the House and taken root in the Senate."
Coming back to the Capitol where he had worked as a Senate aide more than 30 years ago, Alexander said he found "almost every spare moment is spent in team meetings," with Republicans and Democrats caucusing separately to plot strategy. "The only time you visit with people from the other party is when you're milling around during a floor vote or gathered for a prayer breakfast."
He said he had only "modest hopes" for what a shared orientation week would produce but regarded it as "one of the small steps" that could restore a greater degree of comity and cooperation in the Senate.