Eliza Collins, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON – As the partial government shutdown stretches on, it’s easy to view Washington as stuck at a bitter stalemate. But in between accusations and name calling, some lawmakers have nurtured bipartisanship – through activities like exercising, praying and eating.
In a city that appears more partisan than ever, these real friendships continue on underneath. From early morning circuit training to houseboat cruises on the Potomac River, lawmakers continue to hang out together.
Back in 2013, those across-the-aisle relationships in Congress helped end a shutdown.
That doesn’t mean they’ll be able to do that this time around.
“Bipartisan friendships are an important step in the right direction, but are not enough to reach a compromise when party leadership are sending a different signal,” said Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer, executive director emerita of the National Institute for Civil Discourse.
The partial government shutdown entered its 31st day on Monday with no obvious solution in sight.
The stalemate has come from President Donald Trump’s demand for funding for a wall along the southern border. He’s vowed to veto any bills that do not include the money.
But Democrats refuse to budge, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., calling a wall “immoral.”
Over the weekend, Trump expanded what he’d be willing to accept and said he’d be willing to extend temporary protections for so-called DREAMers – undocumented immigrants who were brought into the country as children – as well as immigrants who have hold Temporary Protected Status, or TPS. Democrats rejected that offer; Pelosi said the proposal did “not represent a good faith effort to restore certainty to people’s lives.”
Sen. Joe Manchin, a centrist Democrat from West Virginia, has worked on breaking the stalemate at the member level. Last week, he hosted about a dozen lawmakers seeking a solution. But they’ve been unable to make progress.
Manchin wants Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to allow votes on “clean bills” already passed by the House. That would allow federal workers to start getting paid again. Then Congress and the president could start negotiating over border security, he said.
“In my heart of heart, I believe it would pass,” Manchin said. McConnell has said there’s no point in voting on them in the Senate unless Trump will sign them.However, the majority leader said he would put the president’s newest proposal on the Senate floor this week — though doing so doesn’t mean the House will ever take up the legislation.
The standstill frustrates Manchin, who is known for working across the aisle. He’s also known for hosting bipartisan parties on his house boat in Washington, where members drink beer and eat pizza. Manchin takes the boat out onto the Potomac, and, when it floats up to the monuments, he puts on Lee Greenwood’s version of “God Bless the U.S.A.”
“We all grab and hold onto each other and kind of sing along, it’s just a wonderful time it’s really special,” he said.
Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., an avid poker player, has multiple bipartisan groups she plays with when she has free time. She is a go-to for host showers and engagement parties for members.
The friendships Dingell has created with members in both parties are one reason she is “very” frustrated about the current shutdown, “but I keep talking to people.”
“This shutdown is at a senior level between the leadership of both chambers, and the president. And each of those leaders is counting on their caucuses to support them,” Dingell told USA TODAY. But, Dingell said, even during the shutdown, there are bipartisan coalitions working on legislation related to health care, prescription drug coverage, infrastructure and domestic violence.
Come together over dinner
In 2013, the women of the Senate helped to draft the compromise that ultimately reopened the government after a 16-day partial government shutdown. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, credited the start of those conversations to a female-only dinner group.
On the fifth day of that shutdown, she took to the Senate floor to outline her framework for a solution.
“I don’t think it was a coincidence that the first three people who called me were women senators,” Collins told USA TODAY last week. “I think that’s because we formed these relationships through these informal gatherings.”
The coalition grew – and eventually included male senators – but her initial plan served as the framework for the final solution.
“Leadership, I must fully admit, was provided primarily by women in the Senate.,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said at the time.
Now that the new Congress has started, Collins and the other women of the Senate are working to restart those dinner parties, which have been going on for decades and take place all over Washington.
“They allow us to get to know one another and to form bonds of friendship and trust that transcend the day-to-day politics of the Senate,” she said.
The group’s long-standing rules?
“No staff, no memos and no leaks.”
Collins has been working with her colleagues again during this shutdown, including Manchin, but she isn’t sure how to solve the current crisis.
“There are a number of people on both sides of the aisle who are sincerely trying to figure out a way out of this impasse,” she said last week, but it is “very difficult when the two key players are taking such absolutist positions.”
On Saturday, Collins said she was “encouraged” by the president’s proposal and “hopeful” that the expanded offer “will lead to a constructive debate that will end this impasse.”
Wednesday on the Hill
Despite the bitterness at the top, the camaraderie continues.
Last Wednesday, lawmakers were acting, well, normal. Sens. James Lankford of Oklahoma, a Republican, and Chris Coons of Delaware, a Democrat, hosted their weekly prayer breakfast at 8 a.m.
And like every other day when the House is in session, Rep. Markwayne Mullin, another Oklahoma Republican, led 16 people through an hour of circuit training at 6:30 a.m. Mullin, a former mixed martial arts fighter, leads circuit training for a group of roughly16, evenly split Democrats and Republicans. Elsewhere in the House gym, Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat, was at her old stomping grounds, teaching a spin class for a half-dozen people at the same time.
“We build relationships through agony sometimes,” Mullin told USA TODAY.
On this particular day, his group started off with a run on the basketball court then dug into an intense workout that lasted the full hour and included box jumps, pushups and squats. One thing the workout didn’t include: politics talk.
“That’s kind of the rule: If you talk too much politics, I’ll stop and we’ll run wind sprints or do burpees,” Mullin said.
They’ve kept the workout space so sanitized of politics that the shutdown hasn’t come up – even when member Kevin McCarthy’s role as House minority leader is to keep his party united against legislation to reopen government without border wall funding while some of the Democrats in the room continue to push through bills that would do just that.
They also haven’t talked about the fact that Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, the Hawaii Democrat who is a regular, announced last week she was running for president.
Meanwhile, Sinema led a half-dozen people through a spin class as Rihanna, Justin Timberlake and DJ Snake blared through the speakers. She says she won’t let the shutdown affect her friendships in the House gym.
“The fact that we’re in a government shutdown is more than frustrating – it’s disappointing and irresponsible,” said Sinema, who has also been involved in Senate discussions. But “I do not think that has anything to do with our awesome workout routine.”
Shortly after the workouts concluded, 20 senators gathered at the first floor of the Capitol to eat eggs, bacon, fruit, cereal and oatmeal to pray, according to Lankford. It’s a meeting they have every week.
The Oklahoma Republican and his Democratic counterpart, Coons of Delaware, select one person each week to share “their faith journey” and then pick a song for the group to sing together.
Lankford said the weekly prayer show an “extremely personal” side of members which helps to “build relationships deeper and stronger.”
That’s helped him create friendships with members outside of the breakfast, which like the gym, is a politics-free space. He and Coons have worked together on multiple pieces of legislation.
Lankford said he’s trying to work with his colleagues across the aisle to reopen the government, but it’s been hard because “at the end of the day, this is about Pelosi and the president,” he said last week
Saturday, he said the president’s offer was “a reasonable compromise” that “should give Democrats an opportunity to negotiate in good faith.”