Even though they sat on opposite sides of the aisle, Coons called Isakson “a great mentor and ultimately a great friend.” Conversations with Republicans over heaps of meat tenderized by gently rendered fat, Coons said, helped grease the wheels for cross-party collaboration.
When the tradition started, leaders in both parties looked at it leerily. “Harry Reid bitched about it,” Isakson told CQ Roll Call in 2019, adding that Mitch McConnell worried the barbecue was a precursor to a leadership challenge. This year, Coons thanked Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and McConnell for clearing the schedule for the event.
The barbecue lunch is hardly the only bipartisan social event on the congressional calendar. Next Wednesday, the two parties will take to Nationals Park for the Congressional Baseball Game, and earlier that same day members will hit the pavement together for ACLI’s Capital Challenge, a 3-mile road race. A few hours before Thornton and Latimer started laying out trays of pulled pork and brisket, the House Modernization Committee held a hearing titled “Pathways to Success: How Practicing Civility, Collaboration, and Leadership Can Empower Members of Congress.” Wednesday night, the Congressional Softball Game held a reception for the breast cancer charity’s sponsors and participants. Every session, there are countless codels, meet and greets, ceremonies and parties on Joe Manchin’s boat offering members the opportunity to make friends across the aisle.
As with all those, the luncheon’s organizers say this event can help bridge the gulf between the two parties.
“Barbecue isn’t magic, it’s good food,” said Coons. “We’ve got senators who aren’t talking to each other, at all, about anything. And so, if you have lunch together once, it might begin some movement toward the conversations that we need to have. … If we don’t make some efforts toward bridging some of the divides we have here, we won’t make real progress together.”