Senate orientation will aim to bridge partisan divide

Although this year's freshman class will change the Senate's political landscape by increasing the GOP majority, its members are gearing up for an orientation they say will place more emphasis on building bipartisan relationships than previous Senate orientations.

Two Senate Republicans and two Democrats are working with leadership to imbue the four-day program with more of a "retreat" atmosphere, according to Senate aides.

"As new members come in, he thinks it's important that they start off on the foot of thinking in terms of working together," said a spokeswoman for Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

Alexander is working with Sens. Thomas Carper, D-Del., Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and George Voinovich, R-Ohio, to organize the program, which begins Sunday, Nov. 14. The orientation will include crash courses on a wide range of subjects, led by as many as 20 "faculty" senators from both sides of the aisle.

The program is designed to create "more of a human element," according to a Carper aide, who said previous freshman orientations have been somewhat dry and technical. "This is basically an effort to try to build bipartisanship from day one -- to build human relationships between new senators and old senators so this place can function in a less partisan atmosphere," Carper's aide said.

The newly elected senators will stay at the same hotel, share meals and ride together to the Capitol each day, according to Carper's aide. Carper plans to stay at that hotel during the orientation program, and several other faculty senators also are considering staying there, the aide added.

The organizers also have discussed assigning two Senate "mentors" -- one Republican and one Democrat -- to each newly elected senator as the orientation draws to a close. "And there's been some talk about doing a retreat with the mentors and the new senators in January, for a day and a half," Carper's aide said.

Noting that Alexander, Carper and Voinovich are former governors and Pryor is a former state attorney general, aides said the four senators are largely modeling this year's program on the freshman orientations typically organized by the National Governors Association and the National Association of Attorneys General.

"NGA works very hard to be a bipartisan institution, and I think that being former governors and having to get things done gives Sen. Alexander and Sen. Carper and Sen. Voinovich a different perspective," Alexander's spokeswoman said.

The spokeswoman noted that Alexander has collaborated with Carper and other Democrats on clean air legislation, a compromise Internet tax bill and other issues. As governor, Alexander also had to bridge partisan differences with a Democrat-controlled state legislature.

"He feels that the intersection of principles is an important part of the process," Alexander's spokeswoman said.

Orientation for new House members begins Nov. 13 in Washington and will continue through the week of the lame duck session. Additionally, the biennial orientation session for new House members hosted in Boston by the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Institute of Politics is scheduled for Nov. 29-Dec. 2. The Heritage Foundation, which also holds orientation sessions for new members, will hold its retreat in Baltimore Jan. 17-18.

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