Heard on the Hill

The three places where senators can ‘actually’ talk

Sen. Chris Coons’ favorite places to reach across the aisle

From left, Sens. Charles E. Schumer, D.N.Y., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Chris Coons, D-Del., share a laugh after a markup hearing on judicial nominations. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

“We’re real people. We’re not just two-dimensional targets,” Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., told a lecture hall of law students at Notre Dame last week.Flanked by former Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., Coons talked about the hyperpartisan environment on Capitol Hill and the intention required to cut through it and work. For the Delaware senator, this means talking to his colleagues “in the three settings [he has] found where there [are] no lobbyists, no staff and no press.”

First, the gym 

Joking that Flake spent more time in the gym than he did, Coons told the students about the senators-only gym — a place “you can actually chat as you’re working out.” While little information is publicly available about the gym, Roll Call learned more about the facility in 2013 by standing in the hallway outside it for several hours. 

Second, at prayer

A bipartisan group of lawmakers meet every Wednesday morning Congress is in session for a weekly prayer breakfast. It’s co-hosted by one Democrat and one Republican, who switch out every two years. Coons, who once co-hosted the breakfasts, said that “the most important insights [he] had ever gotten” came from listening to his colleagues “tell personal witnesses of their journey of faith.” He explained to the students that “when you hear them as humans, and hear their family, and their history, and their struggle, you can learn them, and then you can work with them.” Sen. James Lankford, also a former co-host, put it in simple terms in 2018, saying “It’s much harder to stab someone in the back after you prayed for them in the morning.”

Third, leave the U.S. 

CODELs, short for congressional delegations, are official trips abroad, organized routinely to facilitate the education of members and staff. However, Coons pointed to another benefit, saying that the overseas trips were really what allowed him and his colleagues “the opportunity to know each other and trust each other.” He used his relationships with his co-panelists, Flake and Donnelly, as an example, calling the former senators and their wives by their first name.The bipartisan relationship between Coons and Flake was on full display last year during the confirmation process for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The two, who both served on the Judiciary Committee at the time, crafted and pushed their caucuses to support an agreement to delay advancing the nomination until the FBI could deliver a report on the sexual assault charges against the now-Supreme Court justice. 

The Delaware Democrat ended his speech at Notre Dame law school with this message to students: “If there is any hope for bipartisanship, it’s the time and intentionality that we invest in working across the aisle, not as caricatures, but as people.”  

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.