Hidden at the end of a hallway on the first floor of the Capitol, just past the “senators only” sign, is a white-tablecloth eatery with high, arched windows, a thick red carpet flecked with beige flowers, and an ornate chandelier.
Here in the Senate Dining Room, only senators, high-level staff members and other approved guests are eligible to sit in the polished wood and blue leather chairs and talk business over the restaurant’s signature bean soup, while uniformed servers bustle about refreshing iced teas.
A generation ago, Sens. Mike Mansfield, D-Mont., the majority leader, and George Aiken, R-Vt., came here nearly every morning to have breakfast together, a scene almost unimaginable in today’s polarized climate. Now, it has become a place that more resembles Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” than Robert Caro’s “Master of the Senate.”
Comity has been eroding for years in Washington, a gridlocked swamp of a city where the 113th Congress is on track to become one of the least productive in history. But to see the fractured chamber in a more personal way, one has only to tuck into a club sandwich in the dining room – a genteel throwback with its own history, habits and hierarchies.
“The lack of sitting down over lunch to get to know your colleagues is indicative of the hyperpartisanship that surrounds the Senate these days,” said Jim Manley, a former longtime Senate Democratic aide. “The downfall of collegiality in the Senate is symbolized by the lack of members going to the Senate Dining Room.”
Now, along with its more exclusive, truly senators-only counterpart across the hall, the dining room can feel more like a tourist attraction for special guests than a place to get acquainted or cut a deal.
Senators go elsewhere now
When former Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., was first elected to the chamber in 1980, he recalled, he would show up in the senators-only dining room on any given afternoon to find some of the titans of the Senate – Edward Kennedy and Daniel Patrick Moynihan on the Democratic side, and Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond on the Republican side, for instance – eating lunch and carrying on about topics that “ranged from the silly and ridiculous to the very substantive and important.”
The dining room, Dodd said, was a place for true political education laced with raucous “boy school”-style hazing.
“It gave members a chance to be with each other without people handing them a piece of paper about what they needed to say or think about something,” Dodd said. “It was a liberating space, and members need a liberating space where they can say what they think with their colleagues. I regret that it doesn’t exist today.”
It has not for some time. “In the last seven or so years of my service, that room became nothing more than a vacant room,” said Dodd, who retired at the end of his fifth term in 2010 and is now chairman and chief executive of the Motion Picture Association of America.
Food has changed too
There are actually two Senate dining rooms. The larger one, built as part of a renovation in 1960, is open to senators and their top staff and guests. Gone are the days of rich Southern fare – fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy – but the food is tasty enough, with offerings like bacon and eggs at breakfast and a crabcake sandwich or grilled salmon salad at lunch.
The service is efficient, especially for senators, who are all known by name and greeted with a smile or deferential nod before being shown to their table. (The menu also includes a helpful explanation of the various “legislative buzzers and signal lights” throughout the Capitol that alert senators when it is time for a vote.)
The other dining room, which Dodd frequented, is right across the hall, and truly senators-only: Not even staff members are allowed.
Both now barely resemble their previous incarnations. The senators-only dining room has all but ceased to exist. Lawmakers still frequent the Senate Dining Room, but more out of convenience or to take constituents, interns or special guests, who get a kick out of the experience.
The reasons for the dining-room decline are reflective of the causes of the general polarization of Congress. Many lawmakers no longer move their families to Washington, and Mondays and Fridays are often devoted to traveling to and from home. Both the Democrats and the Republicans have caucus luncheons nearly every day the Senate is in session. And the increased demands of near-constant fundraising often force members to spend their breakfast and lunch hours wooing donors.
“Considering how pressed we are for time, locking in a whole lunch is a lot,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who ate with constituents in the Senate Dining Room many mornings this summer before taking them onto the Senate floor for a quick tour.
Nonetheless, certain rituals do exist. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, reserves an hour for breakfast with reporters every Thursday morning. The two senators from Oregon, Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, both Democrats, have breakfast every Thursday at 8 a.m.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is partial to eating breakfast alone at the two-top by the front door – diagonally across from the favorite back table of Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.
“We have our spots, and it’s like going to church,” Graham said. “Menendez knows it’s my seat, and he tells people, ‘Don’t sit there,’ and when they go to his seat, I tell them, ‘Don’t sit there.’ It’s like sitting in the wrong pew at church.”
Other bipartisan activities have emerged to fill the void of the dining rooms. There is a weekly bipartisan prayer breakfast, and various senators try to host their own, informal bipartisan dinners. The House and Senate gyms are also places where members from both sides of the aisle sweat together.
And in 2012, after the senators-only dining room stopped serving lunch, Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., started what they call “the inner sanctum.” Held in the former dining room, the inner sanctum offers wine and cheese most nights when the Senate is in session.
“It does still get a good bipartisan crowd,” Schumer said.
And, of course, casual banter and serendipitous encounters can still occur. One morning last month, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, was dining with Richard Anderson, the chief executive of Delta Air Lines. When the two men stood up, Anderson stopped by the table of Schumer, who was there having breakfast as well.
The Federal Aviation Administration had begun a ban, since reversed, on flights to Israel. “Fly to Israel!” Schumer urged Anderson.
From across the room, McConnell jokingly warned his guest to steer clear of Schumer: “Anderson, stay away from him!” he said.
But Schumer was undeterred. Shouting now, he gamely pressed his point. “Tell him to fly to Israel!” he bellowed.
Then, everyone continued with their breakfast.