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GOP Leaders Reaching Out

House-Senate Exchanges to Become Routine

Hoping to improve their often strained cross-chamber relations, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) attended the Senate Republican luncheon Tuesday in the debut of an expected weekly exchange of GOP leaders.

DeLay’s visit was part of a broader effort to strengthen bonds and coordination between House and Senate GOP leaders, a campaign that continued Tuesday night when the top six Republican leaders from each chamber sat down for a private dinner in Speaker Dennis Hastert’s (Ill.) suite of offices.

Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is also scheduling his first trek across the Capitol to meet with the roughly 40-member team of deputies to House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). The McConnell meeting with Blunt’s Whip team was originally slated for Tuesday but was postponed because of Senate votes and will likely occur next week, aides said.

Emerging from the nearly 90-minute weekly luncheon, DeLay said the favor would be returned in kind by a Senate leader, possibly Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), at today’s House Republican Conference meeting. Calling it “an exchange of leaders back and forth,” DeLay said he even got to brief the Senators about the House’s upcoming agenda.

“They only gave me two minutes, I could have taken 15,” he said smiling.

DeLay said he expects to be able to attend the Senate lunches every week, and that each week Santorum or some other Senate leadership member would be invited to attend the House Republican Conference meeting.

The regular attendance of a House Member to a Senate luncheon is an unusual break with custom, considering the only regularly invited guests to the stately Mansfield Room are current and former Senators. As the tie-breaking president of the Senate, Vice President Cheney is also invited to attend the lunches. While he frequently does show up, Cheney never speaks to the gathering and instead sits at a table off to the side and quietly talks with Senators who have questions for him, according to Senators and aides.

Aides said the weekly exchange of leaders and the attempt at increased coordination grew from a round of Members-only meetings that began at the House-Senate GOP retreat in January at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. Others suggested that the ideas for stronger coordination began during a three-day bicameral leadership retreat in early December with Karl Rove and other White House aides at the Tides Inn in Irvington, Va.

Regardless of the timing, leaders from both chambers recognized that, with President Bush’s re-election and increased GOP margins in both chambers, the expectations for success in the 109th Congress were elevated and the need for better coordination increased, according to one senior GOP aide.

Improving relations between GOP leaders in the two chambers has been a long-running effort, particularly over the past two years. During the 2003 budget negotiations, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) inflamed tensions with House leaders when he cut a side deal with GOP Senators on reducing the size of Bush’s tax cut but failed to inform DeLay or Hastert before the news leaked out.

Frist was forced to publicly apologize repeatedly to House GOP leaders. Later that year other steps were taken to smooth over the relations between the two sides, including a private dinner similar to last night’s event, the first taking place in the home of GOP lawyer-activist C. Boyden Gray’s sister-in-law.

Also that year, McConnell and Blunt began a semiregular exchange of visits to meetings of their Whip teams.

While the strained relations from the 2003 budget fight are no longer an issue, the two sides have continued to spar, and DeLay himself frequently pokes fun at Senate rules in his weekly press conferences. And last year, the usually mild-mannered Hastert went after a GOP Senator, John McCain (Ariz.), for his refusal to yield to leadership on a tax-cut issue and instead suggested Republicans forsake things like tax cuts and government spending during wartime.

Hastert said the former prisoner of war’s call for sacrifice was misguided, adding, “John McCain ought to visit our young men and women at Walter Reed [Army Medical Center] and Bethesda [National Naval Medical Center]. There’s the sacrifice in this country.”

McCain said Tuesday he was happy to have DeLay at the lunches, welcoming the idea of more cross-chamber talks. “Everybody knows we need better communication,” he said.

And for some former House Members who’ve gone on to the Senate, this step is something they see as a long-overdue attempt at educating Members on both sides of the Capitol.

“Given the strain that’s been there in the past, I think that people appreciated him coming,” Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.), a three-term House Member before winning a Senate seat in 2002, said of DeLay.

“Maybe this will help foster better communication.”

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