Lawmakers Overcome Party Divide With Hot Cups of Coffee

Posted November 7, 2011 at 5:27pm

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin faced the constituent who had just complained about new regulations on swipe fees.

“You’re wrong,” he said. 

From behind a podium in a Russell Senate Office Building conference room, the Illinois Democrat explained why he thinks the fees charged by credit card companies hurt consumers.

“It’s not transparent. It’s not competitive. It is just imposed on us,” he said.

And then something unusual happened. Sen. Mark Kirk, Durbin’s Republican counterpart from Illinois, stepped up to the podium and turned to the same constituent.

“I absolutely agree with you,” he said. “Once the government [limits] this fee, banks are going to collect it in other ways.”

It was a rare moment in a city increasingly divided along partisan lines: two Senators from the same state but from different parties, respectfully explaining their positions to constituents. And Durbin and Kirk do it once a week.

These constituents coffees, which allow voters to meet their Senators and ask them questions, are a regular occurrence on the Hill. But Senators from only five states hold their coffees together. And only Kirk and Durbin and the Nebraska delegation cross party lines to hold them.

Durbin said that the disagreements can be the most entertaining and enlightening part of the coffees for the visiting constituents. 

“I’ll usually say, ‘And this is the part you’ll like the most. We’re going to disagree,’” he said. “And they will applaud or smile.”

Durbin said the atmosphere of the constituent coffees allows the two men to take opposing sides respectfully in a lighthearted and informative environment. “People like that … we don’t punch one another, we just disagree,” he said.

Although Kirk and Durbin openly disagree on major issues, they can find common ground when talking about Illinois. 

“While he’s the Democratic leader and I’m a Republican Senator, we agree on a ton of Illinois issues,” Kirk said. “We have a very good working relationship.”

Kirk explained that the coffees provide an opportunity for the Senators to meet with the constituents they would not be able to see otherwise. 

“Our schedules are so busy, you can’t see absolutely everyone,” he said. “So you just come in on Thursday morning, and you’ve seen both of your Senators, and you get to ask them questions.”

During his discussion of swipe fee legislation, Durbin made specific Illinois references for members of the audience. 

“What power do you have if you are a restaurant in Chicago, a Ukrainian restaurant, for example, and they say that the swipe fee is going to double next year?” he asked. “We created an exception in the law for those institutions like yours and yours,” he said, pointing to members of the audience. 

He also gave the example of Potash Markets, a family-owned grocery store in Chicago that was losing money because of the 44-cent swipe fee it had to pay on minor purchases such as a pack of chewing gum.

The Illinois coffees, a long-standing tradition started by the late Democratic Sen. Paul Simon, take place every Thursday while the Senate is in session. They include welcome speeches, a brief chat about the relevant issues of the week, a Q-and-A session and a chance for visitors to get their photos taken with the Senators.

The Illinois coffees attract some regular visitors, including those representing groups, visiting tourists and student groups, whom the Senators make sure to include. 

“When we have school groups, I go out of my way to make sure that students get their chance at questions,” Durbin said.

Unlike other Senate coffees, the Nebraska breakfasts, featuring the entire Nebraska delegation, allow constituents to meet with their two Senators — Democrat Ben Nelson and Republican Mike Johanns — as well as Republican Reps. Jeff Fortenberry, Lee Terry and Adrian Smith. 

The five Members take turns organizing the coffees each year, and Fortenberry took the lead this year. He said he’s proud of the long-standing and rare tradition of bringing together the entire delegation. 

“Not only do we get together weekly, we do [it] in front of constituents,” he said. He explained that the breakfasts are a good chance for the Members to see each other as well as constituents, calling them “a good productive hour and a lot of fun.”

Despite the differing political affiliations represented, Fortenberry said the atmosphere is always lighthearted and cooperative. 

“It has none of the characteristics of the combativeness of the two bodies,” he said. When disagreements over politics do occur, “it’s always done constructively to instruct constituents,” he said.

“There are a lot of jokes. It’s a lot of fun,” Fortenberry said, adding that a frequent topic of discussion is the fact that the Members are sometimes referred to as the “hair delegation” for the impressive hairlines the five Members maintain. 

“It’s a very interesting hour,” he said.

The breakfasts, which were started in 1943 by Republican Sen. Hugh Butler, begin with short welcoming speeches, during which the Members introduce themselves as well as the visiting constituents from their districts. Those are followed by an informal discussion and the chance for visitors to have their picture taken with the Members. They take place Wednesday mornings when both chambers are in session, from February to September.

Fortenberry said the breakfasts embody the state’s welcoming nature. 

“This isn’t a constituent coffee. This is a ‘Nebraska Breakfast,’” he joked.