The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bipartisan Senate lunch crew hopes to do more than just break bread together

Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), left, Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) speak with reporters during a news conference with a bipartisan group of lawmakers as they announce a proposal for a covid-19 relief bill on Dec. 14.
Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), left, Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) speak with reporters during a news conference with a bipartisan group of lawmakers as they announce a proposal for a covid-19 relief bill on Dec. 14. (Al Drago for The Washington Post)

Some days, it really is just lunch.

That’s how members of the Senate’s recently formed bipartisan crew describe their ongoing efforts to find common ground in an evenly divided chamber that, despite those equal margins, has tilted heavily toward the Democratic edge so far this year.

Most Wednesdays, 10 Democrats and 10 Republicans gather in a large committee hearing room, having lunch and discussing everything from the legislative issues of the day to their personal lives. These senators played a key role late last year in breaking an impasse on a pandemic relief package, putting out a proposal for $908 billion in relief funds that served as a framework for the final compromise that passed just before Christmas.

The GOP senators in this group initially had high hopes to build from that success and the “time to heal” rhetoric from President Biden, believing they could work with the new president on critical deals.

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But the first two months of the new administration have produced a tense impeachment trial of the previous president and then a go-it-alone $1.9 trillion covid relief package.

And now Biden’s advisers are suggesting his next major legislation will be something in the range of $3 trillion for infrastructure and other liberal priorities, a price tag that has left moderate Republicans like Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) shaking their heads.

At that level, Republicans suspect Democrats will again use the budget process known as reconciliation to try to approve a huge chunk of their agenda with only Democratic votes, leaving the “G-20,” as the Senate lunch group bills itself, in an awkward position of constantly talking about bipartisanship even as Biden pursues a party-line approach.

Yet they haven’t given up on lunch.

“It’s far harder to demonize someone you’ve broken bread with,” Collins said Wednesday in a telephone interview.

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) walked out of last week’s huddle into a hallway of reporters asking about the group’s biggest goals.

“I’m just trying to keep our bipartisan group together,” Manchin said, matter-of-factly.

While he hosts most of the luncheons in his Energy Committee hearing room, G-20 senators have a rotation in terms of who picks up the tab.

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Collins, the most senior Republican in the group, remains optimistic that there are moments on the horizon where only bipartisan solutions will be required and, when that moment arrives, that this group will be there waiting in the wings to help nudge a solution across the finish line.

She said the group, which did not meet for a full lunch Wednesday, has also broken into smaller subgroup meetings on certain issues. Collins has the most optimism on a bipartisan deal on raising the minimum wage.

The Senate parliamentarian has already ruled that as a policy issue, it cannot be included in a budget-reconciliation package, and eight Democrats broke ranks and opposed the $15-an-hour proposal in a procedural vote this month.

Collins thinks that her group could come around to a proposal of $10.50 an hour, enough to raise workers out of poverty wages and not have any reductions in the workforce.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for middle ground,” she said.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) views this group as a critical player in any immigration and border security proposal, which also probably falls into the type of policy that still requires a 60-vote hurdle to end debate and pass the Senate.

“That’s not a reconciliation issue. That’s something we need to do by changing some policy,” Portman told reporters Wednesday in the Capitol.

So as long as Manchin and a few other Democrats oppose liberal efforts to end the legislative filibuster, 60 is still the magic number, and this group’s 10 Republicans believe that, eventually, Biden has to pay attention to them.

“This group can form the basis for some consensus, to be able to move forward,” Portman said.

Tensions remain raw from how the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan was handled by Biden and Democrats. The 10 Republicans of the G-20 went to the White House for Biden’s first meeting with members of Congress, in which they pitched a $618 billion proposal for pandemic issues such as vaccine production and helping small businesses.

“We were expecting a counteroffer,” Collins said Wednesday.

Instead, the next day Senate Democrats set in motion the reconciliation process that would end in early March with all 50 members of the Democratic caucus voting yes, all Republicans voting no.

Democrats viewed the distance between $1.9 trillion and $618 billion as simply intractable, and believed that if they entered a long negotiation with the GOP senators, inevitably a couple of them would have balked at the increased price tag — and the moment just one of them backed out, the entire deal would have crumbled because the whip count would be fewer than 60 votes.

So that’s the dilemma for Collins, Portman and the eight other Republicans, finding issues where they will all stand together to provide that magic number of 60 votes.

Biden’s party-line approach in Congress has worked so far. But Sen. Joe Manchin wants bipartisanship.

Exiting last week’s meeting, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) described the group’s goals as modest for now.

“It’s relationship-building knowing that we are in a closely divided Senate,” Murkowski said, adding they still need to find their moment.

Once that moment and the right issues arise, they can flex their muscle, she said. “I see this group having a role potentially in everything that is coming before the Senate.”

But Democrats have pushed so much of their agenda into the first rescue plan and want to pack even more into the second package, that it leaves open the question about when they will ever need bipartisanship.

Some Democrats want to break apart the pending legislation into one piece that is the traditionally bipartisan infrastructure agenda — funding for highways, bridges, dams — to win GOP support. And then pile the other partisan items into the next Democrats-only reconciliation package.

But Republicans warned that they would probably not go along for that ride.

Yet they still want to keep meeting, still want to have lunch, still want to give this bipartisan thing a try, whenever that day comes.

“Disappointed,” Collins said, “but not discouraged.”

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