A preacher, a doctor, a historian, a governor, two businessmen, a few veterans and some lawmakers walk into a bar … and the “bear den” is born.
Every other week or so, an email will circulate among the Senate Republicans elected in 2014 with a line like, “Hey, you guys want to have a bear den?” The regular morning meetings take place in one of their offices, and the meeting name derives from the hotel bar in Hershey, Pa., where they gathered during their first joint Republican retreat.
“I always joke that we should have a grunt as our official greeting or something,” Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., said with a laugh.
Ask Gardner or any of the Senate GOP freshmen about their fellow “classmates” and they’ll be quick to remark that their class is a unique group of people.
Though the class of 2014 is not be diverse in terms of race (each one is white), or gender (only two out of the 13 freshmen are women), the senators bring a wide swath of experiences, ranging from the business world to the battlefield, and have diverse perspectives on the country’s problems. They’re also overwhelmingly Republican — nine of them replaced Democratic senators, shifting control of the chamber with their arrival; three replaced fellow Republicans.
Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., the only new Senate Democrat, took his status in stride, recently joking, “It put me in leadership right away because I was president of the Democratic freshman class.”
And he’s proof of the difference a year makes. The Huffington Post once pegged him as the “loneliest person in the Senate,” but he spent the first days of February swarmed by reporters in the Senate basement who were looking for the scoop on the response to the Flint, Mich., water crisis.
Other freshmen have made their marks as well. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., the youngest senator at age 38, gained national attention — or perhaps notoriety — when he wrote to the leaders of Iran. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., who said in his first floor speech that he was mistaken for a Senate page, has traded barbs with GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump.
The 12 Republicans make up nearly a quarter of the GOP conference, though Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., said they don’t want to be seen as a “faction,” but rather “a force promoting positive change.” And despite some standouts, the senators said they work as a group.
“There’s not any one member that’s tried to either rise above the others, or that you really see as the focal person in the class,” said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla.
Lankford is one of several members who said their class bonded on the campaign trail before coming to the Senate.
“A lot of the same themes of my campaign were played out in other campaigns,” Gardner said. “When you’re having $50 or 60 million worth of TV ads run against you, telling you you’re the most miserable person on Earth, it’s nice to share and have a conversation with someone who’s going through the same thing.”
Gardner and Lankford are two of seven freshmen, including Peters, who came from the House, and they’ve been adjusting to the new procedures and power of their office.
“It’s almost like when you’re going from junior high to high school,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W. Va., a former House member. “And when you’re in junior high you don’t want to go to high school. You’re like, ‘Oh I don’t know anybody. I don’t know how to get around the building, I’m going to be afraid.’ But then on your first day of high school you step into the building and look back at junior high and you say, ‘See ya!’”
The high school metaphor is often repeated in Congress, whether it’s criticizing members’ behavior or describing activities like orientation. And it’s not lost on new senators, who are at the bottom of the totem pole.
“Freshman class makes it sound like high school,” Sasse said in a statement,”and I’m 99th in seniority, so I joke that Dan Sullivan [the Alaska senator who ranks lower] is the only guy I can push into a locker.”
The newcomers were also met with surprises ranging from how long it took to move into their offices (between six and seven months, some said), to how much bipartisan cooperation it takes to get to the magic number of 60 votes in the Senate, which is necessary to end debate.
The bipartisan rapport came as particular surprise to Capito, one of two women in the freshman class, who described regular dinners between Senate women from both parties.
“We definitely didn’t do that in the House,” she said.
The freshmen also found an increased emphasis on foreign policy. They were able to delve into international affairs policy with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who took two groups of GOP newcomers on trips to the Middle East in March and October.
McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said they had to split the trips up because of the size of the class, and that McConnell does the trip with each group of freshmen.
Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said the group went to Israel, Jordan, Iraq and Afghanistan, meeting with leaders in each country. “We didn’t have a bunch of pre-scripted talking points,” Daines said. “[McConnell] just let us engage in those meetings and get the information we wanted, ask the questions we wanted.”
“There’s nothing like being on a plane for 38 hours together,” Capito said of the trip. “A lot of bonding.”
GOP leadership has also sought the new senators’ input in the ongoing discussion about changing Senate rules. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., formed a working group on the rules that included Gardner, Sasse, Lankford and Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.
“All of us are interested in finding a better way … to get rid of the frustrations that led to us running in the first place,” Gardner said.
“We all kind of ran on the same thing,” noted Perdue, the only Fortune 500 CEO in the Senate. “That is, the dysfunction of Washington.”
Some senators noted the Senate’s achievements since the GOP took control, echoing the leadership mantra that it is “back to work.”
“Most of the press stories are all about kind of how there’s this horrible partisanship and nothing ever gets done,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, a former attorney general who also worked in the George W. Bush administration. “I actually think a lot gets done.”
GOP leadership has pointed to legislation passed in 2015, including a highway bill and an education overhaul, as proof the Senate is working again. But one senator who came from outside Congress still thinks they have a long way to go.
“When I came here, I told everybody that [Washington] was broken,” said Rounds, who served as South Dakota’s governor. “It’s worse than what I thought it was.”
Rounds later added that he’s brought up this concern with his fellow freshmen, who respond, “You should’ve seen it the way it was.” But, he argued, the Senate should be able to more quickly address pressing issues.
And that sense of urgency is something Rounds said senior members have cautioned freshmen not to lose sight of.
“The one thing that members in our conference have told us time and again: ‘Don’t lose your sense of urgency,'” Rounds said. “‘Remind the rest of us that it’s still there.'”