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Behind the Doors of the Senate Gym

Early-rising lawmakers get better acquainted in ‘sweat-filled room’ — the Senate gym

Behind a discreet set of keypad-entry double doors on the first floor of the Russell Senate Office Building lies one of the last oases of what was once the world’s greatest good-old-boys club: the Senate’s members-only gym.

Senators start trickling in at 5:30 a.m. in various states of dress, without the benefit of sunlight or staff, toting gym bags, newspapers and even to-go venti coffees as custodians above loudly buff the marble floors of Russell’s rotunda. In the era of modern travel and constant campaigning, the mysterious gym — where staffers and security details are barred — has grown into one of the few places where members can just be themselves without fear of repercussions.

“The sweat-filled room has now replaced the smoke-filled room,” quipped Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., one of the deans of the early-morning gym crew. Barrasso is usually the first to arrive in the morning and opens up shop. He and Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., who typically arrives minutes later, control the television. The news program they watch is the result of a compromise — MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” is hosted by a conservative, but the channel is left-leaning.

Though certainly there has been some early-morning wheeling and dealing on elliptical machines, many of the 13 members — all men — approached by CQ Roll Call as they went about their daily routines said the most important part of the experience was not negotiating but getting to know more about their colleagues’ personal lives.

That is one of the catches to this club, like so many others in Washington. There is a separate locker room and smaller workout space for the Senate’s 20 female senators. Although few members of the early-morning crew said they had seen women on their side of the gym, or ever seen the women’s workout room, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said she has used the primarily male workout room.

“I’d be fine with it being all opened up, and I think actually that would be a good thing [because] it’s not a real big gym, to make it larger,” Ayotte said Wednesday afternoon. “But I do go over to the other side to use the equipment, and it’s no big deal.”

Last Wednesday morning, like clockwork, Barrasso appeared just moments before CQ Roll Call arrived at 5:30 a.m., but he popped into the hall between his workout and shower to rib a reporter for “sleeping in.” Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., was the last of the morning shift, rolling in at 8:46 a.m.

At the gym, arrival times, workout gear and routines define these senators and how they interact with each other.

Barrasso — a former doctor — is the “resident attending,” dispensing medical advice to colleagues. “Sen. [Jerry] Moran of Kansas is always saying: No matter what your medical question, John Barrasso says, ‘I’ve got a pamphlet on that!’” Durbin said.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., strolls in wearing basketball shorts to his knees and gym shoes squeaking on the marble and clutching a cup of coffee. He chides his older colleagues about still reading deadwood papers as he casually scrolls on his iPad.

Meanwhile, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., swims at the edge of the infinity pool, commissioned at the turn of the last decade by former Senate Rules Chairman Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., whose toddler-aged daughters would sneak in with him on the weekends, strip down and play.

On this morning, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana is the first Democrat to show up to the gym, around 6:46 a.m, beating out Blumenthal and a disheveled Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., whose yellow tie was draped around his neck like an untied scarf and who carried a pile of newspapers under his arm. Durbin has been recovering from the flu and says later in his office that it’s the first time in six years he’s missed workouts on two consecutive days.

Multiple senators confirmed that when one of their colleagues who is in the gym appears on television — either in a clip or being promoted for an upcoming interview — the other senators will tease them, “Hey that’s you!” or “You better get moving if you’re going to be a television star!”

Sure, much of what happens is what Durbin calls “good-natured ribbing,” evidenced by some of the quotes given by members leaving the gym: “He’s new, so he still hasn’t been hazed, I think,” Rubio says of Jeff Flake of Arizona, when he hears the Republican freshman walked in with a baseball cap. “Only for the members who work out!” quips Tester, of the actual benefits of showing up to Russell early.

Of course, there is some legislative gain to be made. At the gym, Durbin helped recruit Rubio to join a working group on immigration policy. And he and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., struck a final deal on the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 — which reduced the disparity in sentences for powder and crack cocaine — in the locker room.

“We were both getting dressed after working out, and we came up with a number and agreed on it right there, and it became law,” Durbin said, of what might be the only Senate-gym-induced law on the books to date.

Durbin, like many other former House members, continued to frequent the larger, better-known and state-of-the-art House gym for years after becoming a senator. But the cozy confines of the Russell space — where Rubio said 90 percent of the conversations are about something other than politics — now bring the veteran Illinois Democrat a certain sense of peace.

Even when the partisan rancor on the floor is at its worst, the mood in the gym is genial.

“You don’t bring the worst part of the job in the gym  . . .  at all,” Durbin said. “It’s more the personal and the family side of it; it kind of carries you through. You know a little bit more about some of the family challenges each of us faces. It’s a much friendlier and forgiving atmosphere than the rough-and-tumble political scene.”

Although for other members, it’s really just all about the stationary bikes and the weights.

“I worked out hard!” Flake, clad in an ESPN T-shirt, yells as he rounds the corner on the way to his office just after 8 a.m.

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