WASHINGTON – New Democratic and Republican leaders, trying to break Senate gridlock, announced Tuesday that they will open the new Congress with a closed "bipartisan caucus" to set a more pleasant tone and speed up business.
"We wont always agree, but can sit down, side by side, and forge consensus on the issues important to the American people," incoming Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said in a joint statement with his Republican counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell.
"I look forward to working with Sen. McConnell to establish a new tone and to produce real results next year, and this joint caucus is the first step in that process," Reid added.
"Republicans intend to be as cooperative as possible to help the Senate get off to a good start next year," McConnell, of Kentucky, said.
The Jan. 4 session, to be held on the opening day of the 110th Congress with Democrats in charge, will take place in the Old Senate Chamber before the body begins official legislative business. It will be the first meeting of the full Senate since President Clinton's 1998 impeachment trial.
The plans were disclosed Friday, as a Congress still under Republican control was being accused by Democrats of being a "do-nothing" institution. It would establish a precedent expanding the kinds of "executive sessions" that up to now have been relatively rare, so that lawmakers can work better together.
Open government advocates immediately objected.
Any meeting of 100 senators with rules of any kind is by definition a meeting of the Senate, said Brian Darling, director of Senate relations for The Heritage Foundation.
"It would be a de facto meeting of the Senate and although they want to call it something else, it is," Darling said.
"To set up something and to plan something between the leaders is very unusual and should be subject to open government rules," he added. "Their intentions are good but the results of what they're doing will be not good for the American people."
Spokesman for the lawmakers said the meeting would not amount to a closed session of the lawmaking body under the chamber's rules. McConnell spokesman Don Stewart likened the proposal to closed weekly policy lunches that the Republican and Democratic caucuses hold separately for which the Senate briefly recesses.
"We won't be transacting legislative business," Stewart said.
The Senate met in secret until 1794 in the belief that its role providing counsel to the executive branch compelled closed proceedings.
Since 1929, the Senate has held 54 secret sessions, generally for reasons of national security, according to a Sept. 27 report of the Congressional Research Service. Democrats last year forced a closed session of the Senate — in the chamber used currently — to discuss Iraq war intelligence.
Closed sessions of the Senate are held periodically to discuss specific, sensitive business, such as impeachment deliberations, matters of national security and sensitive communications from the president, according to a Sept. 27 report by the Congressional Research Service.
Members and staff who attend these meetings have been prohibited from divulging details, and transcripts have not been published unless the chamber votes to release them, CRS said.