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Can across-the-aisle friendships survive the Trump era?

Aides see partisan tensions encroaching on typically neutral ground

The Capitol Lounge has long been a popular hangout for congressional staffers. Can aides from the different parties keep breaking bread together in the Trump era? (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The Capitol Lounge has long been a popular hangout for congressional staffers. Can aides from the different parties keep breaking bread together in the Trump era? (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

For decades, at the end of a long day, it wasn’t unusual for Republican and Democratic congressional staffers to leave their differences at the negotiating table and head to the bar to hang out.

But as the pre-2016 crowd moves into more senior positions — or says “See ya” to the Hill for gigs on K Street — many veteran staffers fret that the 20-somethings taking their places are not making as many strong friendships across the aisle.

Republican and Democratic staffers who spoke to Roll Call for this story agreed that the heightened partisan social rigidity since the election of President Donald Trump is more to blame than any other factor.

“There are plenty of Democrats who will judge you, even if you don’t work for the president or anything, [because] you’re working for the Republican Party in this era,” one senior GOP communications aide said.

“They view all Republicans as shills for Donald Trump. And given how they view him, it can be tough for some of them to be accepting,” the aide said.

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On the other side of the aisle, Democrats who struggle to stomach the idea of forging a social connection with anyone associated with Trump or the party he leads say it’s not just about their own preferences.

In the Trump era, Republicans on and off the Hill “feel freer” to make offensive comments or push the boundaries of what was once unacceptable language, a senior Democratic committee aide said.

“I think we can all agree right now that the Democratic Party is kind of operating from a standpoint of very high moral standards and a low threshold for outrage,” the aide added.

That, combined with the notion that Republican staffers are increasingly making inappropriate or offensive comments, “doesn’t yield itself to having real genuine friendships,” the aide said, pausing. “At least new ones.”

The observations from senior staffers bear out with many of the younger Democratic and Republican staffers this Roll Call reporter has encountered as a 20-something navigating his own social path in a town brimming with the politically minded.

A “Republican pregame” on Friday. A “Democratic house party” on Saturday. Questions — kind of joking, kind of not — from the hosts on why you’ve brought people from the other side into their homes.

Multiple junior Hill staffers told Roll Call they just don’t see any point in trying to build friendships outside the Capitol campus with people who, they say, disagree with them on almost everything someone in D.C. might be expected to talk about in a social setting.

“I don’t really hang out with Republicans, and I don’t really have any interest. Why would I?” one junior Democratic communications aide said. “I mean, we have nothing — values, ideology — we have none of that in common.”

Breaking the ice

There are some exceptions, though, and they show up in some of the more pedestrian aspects of work life at the Capitol.

Staff assistants and interns responsible for the bulk of the grunt work in Capitol Hill offices are often dispatched to see whether the neighboring office can spot them, say, some staples or printer paper.

Junior staffers for Illinois Democrat Raja Krishnamoorthi and Pennsylvania Republican Brian Fitzpatrick became chummy as neighbors on the fifth floor of the Cannon House Office Building during the last Congress over such exchanges of spare office parts.

There’s also Capitol Hill’s vibrant underground snack trade, where staff assistants and interns swap the free goodies their lawmakers receive from companies who operate in their state to keep their own office stockpiles delicious and varied.

If you work for a lawmaker from Georgia (Coca-Cola products, Chick-fil-A waffle chips), Texas (Dr. Pepper, Snickers, Starburst) or Tennessee (M&Ms, Good & Plenty, Little Debbie snacks), you’re bound to pick up a few friends from the other party along the way.

More health-conscious types might flock to Idaho delegation offices to trade in their goodies for the Chobani yogurt on the market there. (Although a New York company, Chobani has a big plant in the Gem State.)

Former Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Lou Barletta’s office always had a stash of Hershey’s products — not everyone from the Pennsylvania delegation could say the same — so his office was a frequent hub.

The small talk that accompanies these exchanges can blossom into opportunities for happy hour hangouts.

The senior Democratic committee aide who has noticed fewer bipartisan friendships among the junior staffers she supervises said she urges them to get a beer or a coffee with their Republican counterparts and to try to talk about at least one thing that doesn’t involve work.

“I supervise … 12 people,” the aide said. “Very frequently, especially now that we’ve taken the majority, I give pep talks: ‘You’ve got to see your counterparts as people first. You’re only going to be successful here and in this space if you are approaching all of our issues from a place of shared values and assumption of shared values.’”

For her part, she makes a point of going out and getting wine at least once every two weeks with her GOP counterpart, whom she said also confides in her about younger Republican staffers’ resistance to socializing with Democrats.

Such overtures to Republican staffers have led to deep and lasting friendships, the senior Democratic aide said. She became such close friends with one former GOP negotiator, who is no longer on the Hill, that she invited the individual to her wedding in 2017.

“Obviously, I think that my ideas are better and my policies more sound. But that doesn’t mean [Republicans] are evil,” the Democratic aide said.