Senators celebrate behind-the-scenes bipartisan holiday tradition

President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, and their daughters Sasha, and Malia, and Michelle's mother Marian Robinson, react as they light the National Christmas Tree during the National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony at the Ellipse in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015. On the far left on stage is actress Reese Witherspoon. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, and their daughters Sasha, and Malia, and Michelle's mother Marian Robinson, react as they light the National Christmas Tree during the National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony at the Ellipse in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015. On the far left on stage is actress Reese Witherspoon. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

WASHINGTON (MEDIA MEDIA) — U.S. senators make it to the front pages through filibusters and searing rhetoric, but a little-known holiday tradition quietly unites the nation’s top lawmakers behind the scenes in Washington.

It’s the brainchild of Minnesota Sen. Al Franken.

“In grade school, we did a Secret Santa and I think the teachers wanted to make sure that every kid got a present,” Franken explained.

Six years ago, the SNL comedian turned serious politician decided that the typically stodgy upper chamber needed a little holiday fun to bring political adversaries together.

“I thought it would be a fun thing to bring here, so that we could have a Christmas party of sorts,” said Franken, “And I didn’t want any senator to have his or her feelings hurt if they didn’t get a present.”

Initially, the gift exchange had its skeptics.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., recalled, “Al brought this idea up and at first it seemed like, gosh, it’s kinda Al Franken. But it’s become a great tradition!”

Now Warner has gone from a dubious participant to a Secret Santa enthusiast.

“It’s a chance to, regardless of party, get together, exchange gifts, and realize what this season is all about – which is giving, forgiveness, and, frankly, working together,” Warner said with a smile.

Secret Santa, Senate style

This year, following the protracted and particularly ugly presidential battle, almost two-thirds of the Senate joined the fun.

A total of 59 senators took part in the 2016 Secret Santa.

The names are kept strictly under wraps in Franken’s office in the Hart Building, with the final list known only to the senator and his scheduler.

Members get a few weeks to find the perfect presents, usually choosing gifts with themes corresponding to the giver or recipient’s home state.

For instance, last year Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin got a cheese board in the shape of the nation’s dairy capital.

When the gift exchange finally rolls around, Franken reserves a room in the Capitol building and meet for the festivities the day before senators leave for Christmas break.

Franken’s wife Fanni goes grocery shopping for refreshments the weekend beforehand.

Invariably, some of the snacks are crowd pleasers and others have a fan club of one.

“I got a fruit cake, which no usually eats,” laughs Franken, “But I like fruit cake, and we have cheese and grapes and stuff like that” for the others.

Senators also sip on eggnog – one batch spiked with rum, and the other is virgin for non-drinkers like Franken.

Special gifts

The process of crafting or selecting the ideal gift can be a time-consuming labor or love.

Franken draws a United States map by hand (from memory) and adds personalized annotations of locations that signify milestones in their life (e.g., a marriage, governorship and alma mater).

This year, he playfully added a lead co-sponsorship of Franken’s first Senate bill as a “major achievement” in Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson’s distinguished life of public service.

A favorite perennial gift at the meetup is a coal-inspired creation courtesy of West Virginia’s Sen. Joe Manchin.

Manchin “gives this donkey and elephant that have been carved out of this coal (anthracite?) and it’s beautiful,” said Franken. “Some craftsman does this, and I think it’s the neatest present every year. And I wish sometimes he’d draw my name!”

Franken left this year’s Secret Santa with a surprise gift from West Virginia Republican Shelley Moore Capito: a Donald Trump chia pet.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, got a good laugh from a set of pro-wrestling Pez dispenser’s from Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., at this year’s exchange.

Murphy explained in a tweet that Pez and the WWE both originated in Connecticut.

The novelty candy dispensers will no doubt wind up in a place of honor on Murkowski’s mantle back home in Alaska.

Bipartisan goodwill

Sometimes the gifts spark spontaneous moments of bipartisan camaraderie.

Last year, Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., and Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., bonded over literature.

Cassidy remembered, “I gave a copy of All The King’s Men, written by Robert Penn Warren about a [former Louisiana Senator] Huey Long-type character, and if you wanted a textbook on politics, it couldn’t be better. I gave it to Dick Durbin and Dick thanked me at first and then sent me a letter — he’d just started it — but had read some of Robert Penn Warren’s poetry. The poetry was beautiful; it reminded me of my mother. I remembered that poetry and I wrote him a note back.”

It’s in those small moments that the goodwill – too often dormant in these stormy days of political warfare – reemerge and remind legislators of their commonalities.

“It’s friendship, but it also allows a deepening of knowledge of each other’s interests.” Cassidy added, “People around here are Americans. Now, we may be one party or the other, but we’re first Americans.”

Follow Chance Seales on Twitter: @ChanceSeales