Pols Make Great Pals

In politics, the names "Shays-Meehan" and "McCain-Feingold" are synonymous with campaign finance reform bills sponsored by Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Marty Meehan, D-Mass., and Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis.

They are also synonymous with that rare spirit of bipartisanship, and in some cases, friendship, that is fostered among lawmakers despite their positions on opposite sides of the political aisle.

"Congressman Shays trusts Marty Meehan like a brother and feels he has been an absolute pleasure and joy to work with on campaign finance reform," said Shays spokeswoman Katie Levinson. "He is a straight shooter, he has a great sense of humor, has a great staff and knows the issues very well."

In Washington, politics always seems to take precedence over pleasantries. But many lawmakers refuse to let the pull of busy schedules, mistrust and partisan bickering ruin the spirit of comity and goodwill.

Several Capitol Hill sources revealed ample evidence of real friendships, borne out of committee assignments, common goals and shared interests, making strange bedfellows out of what would be otherwise natural political adversaries.

"[House Majority Leader Dick] Armey is pretty cordial with [liberal California] Rep. Maxine Waters," admitted Greg Crist, the conservative Texas Republican's spokesman. "They tell each other stories about their grandchildren — just like any grandparents would."

The same is true for Rep. Lynn Rivers, a liberal Democrat from suburban Detroit and Rep. Walter Jones, a conservative Republican from Farmville, N.C.

"Walter Jones and I have little in common politically, but we can comfortably spend time together discussing our pets," Rivers said. "The love of animals has no political affiliation."

Rep. Phil English, R-Pa., said his friendships have evolved from committee assignments, especially on the House Ways and Means Committee, where he counts as friends fellow committee members Reps. Ben Cardin, D-Md., Karen Thurman, D-Fla., and Bill Jefferson, D-La.

"When you work with a group of people — and we have a lot of continuity on the Ways and Means Committee — what I've found is that personal relationships are much more important than any passing issue or philosophic difference," he said.

Meehan and Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who is known to cross the aisle on political issues, count one another as close friends who got to know one another during two congressional delegations to Ireland to work on a peace deal. Their wives also socialize regularly.

"When you come out of a political background, if you grow up in politics, generally you have more respect for the person on the other side because you know you are both in the same business," he said.

Meehan said that his relationship with King has come in handy in that it "has allowed me to better understand the perspective of the Republican House leadership."

He added that as friends, it is OK for them to disagree politically.

"Even though Peter did not support Shays-Meehan, it never impacted the friendship," Meehan said. "Politics have really been pushed second to the friendship."

Such camaraderie in Washington appears to be on the wane, however, and lawmakers and congressional experts attribute it to increased partisanship and the 365-day campaign cycle.

"There are some folks who have been here a long time and have seen how the evolution has happened and it hasn't necessarily been a good change," said Andy Davis, a spokesman for eight-term Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C.

Most say the problems started somewhere in the late 1980s and culminated with the 1994 Republican takeover of the House and Senate for the first time in 40 years. This was followed by a score of ethics investigations some say were fueled by revenge, and the House impeachment of Democratic President Bill Clinton.

"After all of these years of investigations, its hard to sit down with someone and have a drink if you think they are going to vote against you or your friends in the party," English said. "It's an overall problem."

Bill Frenzel, who served as a Minnesota congressman for 20 years until 1991, blamed the lack of "downtime" for members of Congress who are always working, campaigning and traveling home every chance they get.

"When I first came to Congress, most members purchased a home and had their family here — it was an opportunity for spouses and families to get together," Frenzel said.

Since then, however, real estate prices have skyrocketed and it is not as fashionable now to live "inside the beltway."

But most say that members really do want to get along, and when they do, more gets done on Capitol Hill.

"After 9/11, when members of both houses knew they would have to work together, they did," said Frenzel. "In talking to a number of them, I found that they liked it."