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Senators, Constituents Meet for Breakfast

August 2, 2003

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Majority Leader Bill Frist has had to scale back on personal time, delegate more work to aides and cut short trips home to Tennessee since ascending to the top job in the Senate. Still, one ritual he says is too valuable to give up: his weekly breakfast with constituents.

Frist is one of several senators who host breakfasts each week for home state visitors to the Capitol. Constituents love the gatherings and lawmakers rely on them as a way to stay in touch.

``Along with a list of ways to acclimate yourself to this place, I put it right at the top. It makes so much sense,″ said Frist, who started the breakfasts shortly after joining the Senate in 1995.

Frist, majority leader since December, recently invited freshman Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., to co-host Tennessee Tuesdays. Both of the senators from Illinois, Idaho, Nebraska and Nevada also share the stage at weekly constituent breakfasts.

Illinois Sens. Richard Durbin, a Democrat, and Peter Fitzgerald, a Republican, dine on doughnuts with constituents every Thursday _ an Illinois tradition started in 1985 by former Sen. Paul Simon.

Durbin said that as many as 1,000 constituents have attended the Illinois breakfasts in a single day. ``They just like the fact that they get to see both senators. They even like it when we disagree,″ he said.

Durbin calls the breakfasts ``a dream come true,″ adding that it would normally be very difficult to see so many constituents in such a short period without having to travel.

Alexander said he was thrilled to join Frist. ``I try to see as many people as I can, but this way I can always say to somebody, ’If you come up here, I can always see you,‴ Alexander said.

The senators generally buy the crowd coffee and a nosh, and answer a few questions. The cost is minimal compared with the political payoff, said Norm Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

``It’s a slam dunk politically,″ Ornstein said.

Ornstein said the coffee klatches are particularly important for senators from big states or in leadership posts, who may not have the time that colleagues have to meet and greet.

``It’s a little trickier if you’re Bill Frist and you’re the majority leader and you’re on the floor all the time,″ Ornstein said. ``This becomes an even more enticing way to demonstrate that you’re in touch.″

The crowds at the Senate breakfasts are usually friendly, though occasionally lawmakers get tough questions.

At a July breakfast, physical therapist Holly Carnes of Nashville, Tenn., asked Frist why the Medicare overhaul he was pushing was creating an even more confusing health care system for the elderly.

``It seems very complicated,″ she said. ``These little old folks, a lot of them don’t have family members who can help them with those things.″

Frist explained that revamping Medicare was a monumental task and that lawmakers were trying to simplify the program. Carnes wasn’t entirely satisfied. ``Senator Frist didn’t really answer my question,″ she said glumly.

One of Frist’s health care aides swiftly approached Carnes at the breakfast and offered a more detailed answer, which Carnes called helpful.

Scott Ridgway, in town from Nashville on a recent Tuesday to lobby for mental health funds, said mingling with the senators’ chiefs of staff and legislative aides is a rare opportunity.

``Their staff is all over us right now,″ he said, eyes gleaming as he looked around the packed Senate reception room.

That enthusiasm is not always shared by the many children who show up.

One little boy recently asked his family why they were waiting around to see a ``janitor.″ He thought that’s what his mom and dad kept saying, and he had no idea what a senator was anyway.


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