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Congress Holds Weekend Trust-Building Retreat

LURAY, VA–Seeking to foster a spirit of unity and teamwork between Democrats and Republicans under the new Bush Administration, members of Congress attended a trust-building retreat in Virginia's Shenandoah National Park this past weekend.

Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-IL) leads Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-MO) on a blindfolded walk through the woods.

"For years, Congress has been sharply divided along party lines, with Democrats and Republicans teaming up against one another to further partisan goals," President Bush said. "But this weekend, the congressmen came to realize that the only way to accomplish anything–whether it's reforming Social Security or getting three people over a 20-foot wall with just a yard of rope and an old milk jug–is through cooperation."

Upon arriving at the orienteering cabin, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert said he heard a great deal of complaining from fellow legislators about being taken away from important lawmaking work.

"[Sen.] Sam [Brownback (R-KS)] was bellyaching about having a ton of bills to read. [Rep.] Earl [Hilliard (D-AL)] was saying the retreat was 'gay' and 'for babies,'" Hastert said. "However, a quick bicameral game of Build-A-Song soon broke the ice and had everyone clapping."

Build-A-Song, in which each participant contributes a line about him or herself to a growing song, was well-received by virtually all of the 535 lawmakers, with only Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-SC) showing difficulty keeping meter.

Subsequent exercises offered the legislators physical activity and fun, but also challenged them to reevaluate the way they look at themselves and their peers.

"I was really scared to lean back and fall into Orrin Hatch's arms," Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) said of Saturday afternoon's "Open Arms" workshop. "After all, this was a man who blocked countless pieces of legislation I'd tried to pass over the years. But when I finally worked up the nerve to do it and he caught me, I realized I'd just been saved from physical harm by someone I thought was my enemy. Right then, my eyes were opened, and I thought, hey, I'm around good people in Congress."

Another exercise, in which the legislators sat Republican-Democrat in a circle and had to say one nice thing about the person to their left, proved embarrassing at first, but ultimately strengthened the bonds between the participants.

"I was really touched when Rep. Bill Jenkins (R-TN) told me how he admired the way I stood up for my constituents' interests by fighting so hard for H.R. 2403, which would bring $197 million in infrastructure upgrades to my home district," Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D-PA) said. "During House debate, he called the bill 'pork-barrel politics at its worst.' But when we were sitting in that circle, he apologized and admitted that he only said mean stuff about the bill because he was trying to impress a senior Republican who was head of a subcommittee he wanted to get on. That meant a lot to me."

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) falls into the arms of Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA), learning about the importance of bipartisan trust.

Added Kanjorski: "Ever since the retreat, Bill and I have been inseparable. We're even going to co-sponsor a bill."

The final challenge of the weekend, in which members of Congress were forced to "buddy up" across party lines and build a log bridge across a 75-foot-wide creek, proved the most trust-building experience of them all.

"When they told us we were supposed to build a bridge across that huge creek, we thought, no way, that's impossible," Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-MO) said. "But with a little imagination and a whole lot of teamwork, we actually did it. Now we feel like we can forge a better, more cooperative U.S. government–as long as we remember to trust each other."

"When we finally finished, [Sen.] Jesse [Helms (R-NC)] started jumping up and down on the bridge yelling, 'Yes! We did it!' and then he slipped and fell in the water," Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD) recalled with a smile. "It was a little scary, because at first he didn't come up to the surface. But when he finally did, he just started laughing. Then I started laughing and, before long, everybody was laughing. And when I reached into the creek to pull Jesse out, he pulled me into the water instead! You better believe everybody was cracking up after that happened. And, boy, did we ever splash each other."

On Monday morning, members of the newly strengthened 107th Congress were sent home with their experiences, their memories, and T-shirts featuring caricatures of all the participants.

"As President Bush kept saying on the bus ride back to D.C., whether Democrat or Republican, deep down, we are all the same," Daschle said. "And to have fun working together is the only way to make America great."

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