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GOP Brass Get Away To Come Together

Republican leaders seem to have found the trick to improving House-Senate relations — crossing the Potomac River.

Last Tuesday night, top Republicans from both chambers quietly ventured to a private home in Northern Virginia for dinner and an informal bicameral summit, the first time the full House and Senate leadership have met in months.

“It was kind of a mini-retreat,” said a House GOP leadership aide.

The House was represented by Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.), Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas), Majority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.), Republican Policy Committee Chairman Christopher Cox (Calif.), GOP Conference Secretary John Doolittle (Calif.) and Rep. Rob Portman (Ohio), chairman of the elected leadership.

The Senate contingent comprised Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.), Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.), Vice Chairwoman Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas) and Republican Policy Committee Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.).

“If we could get across the river, we figured there was less of a chance we’d go back to the Capitol” and get back to work, joked Kyl, who organized the dinner party at the McLean home of GOP activist Deecy Gray, the sister-in-law of former White House counsel C. Boyden Gray.

Kyl said the leadership team has talked about doing something like last week’s dinner party for a long time, but never could get around to actually making it happen because of conflicting schedules and the fact that no one simply took charge and organized it. “You try to do these things, they’re not easy. We talk about it, but we don’t have time,” he said.

Over dinner, the leaders spoke in overall terms about message, timing and general endgame strategy. Participants described the meeting as “social” and “casual,” as opposed to a formal meeting with a structured agenda — and that was the point.

“It was a real good way just to get people together unofficially for a change,” said a senior House GOP aide.

Under the direction of Kyl, the leaders were seeking a casual setting where they wouldn’t be quickly pulled away by votes or other innumerable obligations, a gathering in which no specific decisions would be made but two leadership teams that are still getting to know each other could better bond.

“It’s away from the constant phone calls, the rushing to the floor, all that,” said Frist. “It was for us to be together casually, socially.”

Adding to the lack of structure, each side brought only the top staffer in each chamber, Hastert Chief of Staff Scott Palmer and Frist Chief of Staff Lee Rawls.

“There were no decisions made,” Frist said, adding that he hoped there would be a similar meeting that would have a bit more focus but still stick to big-picture message issues. “I suggested we do it again, and I hope we will.”

GOP aides said the off-campus meeting was another in a series of steps that the House and Senate leadership have taken to create a smoother relationship, although they denied that it was hatched as a result of the bad-blood budget deal in the spring. Rather, they called it more of a general effort to educate each other on the cultures of the two chambers.

The low point this year for relations between the two sides came in April after Frist struck a budget deal and declined to inform Hastert or any other House leaders, which prompted unusually strong rebuttals from Hastert, DeLay and other House Members. 

An even frostier moment came two years ago after the anthrax attacks, as Hastert and his House Democratic counterparts closed their chamber and Senate leaders, in a bipartisan display, defiantly stayed in session, prompting the infamous New York tabloid headline declaring Hastert and Co. to be “Wimps.”

Since the April budget deal, Frist has gone out of his way to be deferential to Hastert, with whom aides say he has a genuinely genial relationship. The duo make regular appearances on conservative talk radio as the “Denny and Doc Show.” Aides say the two talk frequently.

Some cross-chamber bonds have built up over recent years, such as the solidified relationship between DeLay and Santorum and the budding friendship between McConnell and Blunt. Other relationships between the two sides go way back, such as Kyl and Hastert, who came into the House together after the 1986 elections.

After what Kyl called a “rocky start” in the spring, he said the two teams have worked together seamlessly, noting that Frist and Hastert met for 90 minutes late last week to talk over the two chambers’ schedules.

Last week’s dinner was just another effort to keep that atmosphere going. “It’s good to get everybody together and take a deep breath once in a while,” Kyl said.

Members and staffers from both chambers emphasized that the fact that there have been no bicameral leadership meetings for at least a few months was merely a function of timing and not indicative of any lingering hostility between the two chambers

“Now is the time for us — when we’re doing conference reports — that we have to meet more,” said a House Republican leadership aide. “We don’t really need to meet that much in the middle of the year.”

One Senate GOP aide noted that in recent months the House and Senate leadership staffs have had a more steady line of communication than the Members themselves.

Each Wednesday while Congress is in, House and Senate leadership aides attend a meeting. When the actual leaders have met, the meetings are usually short, an hour at the most, and there is a specific set of items that must be discussed.

In another step toward keeping an open line of communications between the two chambers, the Majority Whips this week will continue to integrate their operations. Blunt will attend the weekly meeting of McConnell and his deputies Tuesday. The two men started attending each other’s meetings in late spring, a first in GOP history.

“It’s part of an ongoing outreach effort,” a Senate GOP aide said.

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