Cutting deals in smoke filled rooms of the Capitol doesn’t happen anymore. Sipping scotch in a senator’s hideaway to help find compromise is mostly a relic of a time gone by.
But there is still a safe zone for senators to get to know each other across party lines and even negotiate bills: the Senate gym.
It turns out that’s where top Senate Democrats have gotten to know Jeff Sessions, one of their most conservative colleagues and President-elect Trump’s nominee for attorney general.
In at least one instance, breakthrough legislating began in the locker room .
“It was like a miracle,” recalled Sen. Dick Durbin, the number two Democrat who collaborated with Sessions on a bill in 2010.
At the time Durbin was trying to reduce the penalty for crack cocaine, which was 100 times higher than for powder cocaine. Durbin explained that the two lawmakers were at an impasse until he saw Sessions in the gym.
“We both showered, we’re putting on clothes on, about to leave,” explained Durbin. “I said ‘Jeff, give me a number. If you can’t do one-to-one, and I won’t go for 100 to one, what is it?’ It was 18. I can’t tell you why but it was 18. We agreed.” The legislation passed in the Senate and the House and was signed into law by President Obama that August.
But those bipartisan compromises were few and far between, which is why politics and policy differences are likely to supersede good will when it comes to supporting Sessions’ confirmation.
Last week, Durbin, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, met with Sessions about his nomination. When asked whether there is any chance that he could support his colleague as attorney general of the United States, Durbin was diplomatic but frank.
“I want to give him a chance to answer questions under oath at the hearing. That’s only fair,” Durbin explained. “But when he came to my office I can tell you it was not a new Jeff Sessions. He was stuck to positions that I know he’s held for years and years. And some of them are very difficult for me to accept.”
The top Senate Democrat, Chuck Schumer, is also a gym buddy of Jeff Sessions. Schumer recounted recently telling his colleague from Alabama that if he were up for a different post it might be easier. “I said to Jeff Sessions in the gym the other day, if he made you trade – head of the trade representative, we’d be working together very well.”
The New Yorker cited policy differences with Sessions on immigration and civil rights. “You know, we can kibitz in the gym,” Schumer said. “You keep these positions on immigration, you keep these positions on civil rights and voting rights, it’s going to be very hard for me to support you.”
Still, for Democrats to even admit to liking Sessions or working with him at all is a big change from the way the Alabama Senator was viewed when he was first elected in 1996.
Strange twist of fate
At that point, what most senators knew about Sessions was from the experience of rejecting his nomination for the federal bench in 1986.
Sessions was accused of calling a black lawyer “boy,” and calling civil rights groups like the NAACP “un-American,” allegations which Sessions vigorously denied.
Fast forward to 2009, then-Sen. Sessions became the top ranking Republican on the very Judiciary panel that blocked him from a lifetime appointment in the judicial branch all those years ago.
He used that occasion to give us a rare interview on the subject.
“That was not fair. That was not accurate. Those were false charges and distortions of anything that I did, and it really was not. I never had those kind of views and I was caricatured in a way that was not me,” Sessions told CNN in a 2009 interview.
For the past 20 years Sessions has had a chance to prove that to Senate colleagues.
Now when he goes before the same committee that rejected him in 1986, Sessions has the benefit of two decades as senator - many of which he spent on the committee that will once gain decide his fate - this time for attorney general.
Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican elected to the Senate the same year as Sessions in 1996, admits that she and Sessions “don’t agree on a host of issues,” but she was happy to accept his request to introduce him at his confirmation hearing alongside senior Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby.
“He’s a decent, honorable, patriotic individual,” Collins said in an interview in her Senate office. “I felt bad he was not getting a fair shake from those who were denigrating him.”
The Maine lawmaker is referring to allegations of racial insensitivity – the same Democrats used to block Sessions from moving through committee thirty years ago.
Collins explained that she is basing her endorsement of Sessions’ character on her own experience working with him over the past 20 years. Despite their differences on many policy issues, Collins said she got to know Sessions personally at “unguarded” dinners that their Senate class held when they were first elected.
“I don’t know what happened more than 30 years ago, when Jeff was nominated to be a district court judge, and his nomination failed,” she said. “But I do know the Jeff sessions that I have worked with in the past 20 years. And he is a good person, and I believe that he will perform very well as attorney general.”
Another Republican colleague who went out of his way to get to know Sessions is Sen. Tim Scott, the only African-American GOP senator. In December, Scott invited Sessions to visit his home state of South Carolina, where the two lawmakers met with criminal justice professionals in Charleston.
“Before I vote for him to be our attorney general, I want to know what’s in his heart,” Scott told The Post and Courier at the time, “not what he allegedly said back in 1986.”
Despite personal relationships Sessions has made with Senate colleagues over the years, his staunch conservative views, especially on immigration, has sometimes put him at odds with those in his own party.
And Sessions bucked his party politically at times as well.
The starkest example of that in recent years was when he decided to endorse Donald Trump for president during the GOP primaries.
Sessions was the first US Senator to back the businessman. That vote of confidence from a rock-ribbed conservative gave the New York reality television star some much needed credibility with the Republican base.
Now it is up to Sessions Senate colleagues to determine whether Trump’s attempt to pay back Sessions’ loyalty will succeed.