The bourbon was flowing and, at least in one Washington ballroom, a spirit of bipartisanship broke out Tuesday night, courtesy of Kentucky’s distillers.
A 42-gallon oak barrel filled with a mix of some the state’s best bourbon made a 545-mile trek from Lexington to a politically gridlocked Washington by bus on a mission to foster bipartisanship by the glass, rekindling a strategy used by Henry Clay, Congress’ legendary “Great Compromiser.”
“It’s a pleasure to be here to celebrate the spirit of Kentucky – literally,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told the crowd. “The history of bourbon whiskey and the legend of Henry Clay have long been intertwined. It is said that whenever Clay went to Washington, he carried a barrel with him, to ‘lubricate the wheels of government.’”
Tuesday night’s “Bourbon Barrel of Compromise” event wasn’t the so-called “Bourbon Summit” pitched after President Barack Obama suggested that he would like to have a glass of bourbon with McConnell.
The president didn’t make it Tuesday night. But Jerry Abramson, Kentucky’s former lieutenant governor and a former mayor of Louisville, was there on behalf of the White House. Abramson is the administration’s director of intergovernmental affairs.
Although the president wasn’t there, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest called the event worthwhile.
“I think if there’s … an opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to shed their partisan warrior gear and spend some time, even lightheartedly interacting with one another, I think that can only be a good thing,” Earnest told reporters earlier Tuesday. “I wouldn’t necessarily suggest that one sort of social event is going to cause a bipartisan breakthrough to occur. But it certainly couldn’t hurt.”
As McConnell spoke about Clay, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, members of Kentucky’s congressional delegation, and a few Democrats who belong to the Congressional Bourbon caucus mingled with the crowd – and among themselves. Was Clay’s compromise elixir working?
“John Boehner and I had a wonderful discussion,” said Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky. “He was drinking bourbon and we talked about bourbon -- I thought he was a Merlot guy. And we talked about golf.”
The Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship and Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate in Lexington, teamed with the Kentucky Distillers Association in organizing Tuesday’s event with a dual purpose: to promote the state’s bourbon industry and help ease the bitter political atmosphere in Washington.
But given the partisan bickering in the nation’s capital this week alone, it might take more than 42 gallons of hooch to loosen up both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
“If only it were that easy,” Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics said of lawmakers tossing a few back and talking. “A lot of us would have paid for it (bourbon) earlier.”
The White House and the Republican-controlled Congress traded barbs over Obama’s proposed $4 trillion fiscal 2016 federal budget.
Powered by Republican lawmakers, the House of Representatives held its 56th vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s legacy law.
Over in the Senate, Democrats and Republicans were feuding over a Republican-sponsored House bill that would fund the Department of Homeland Security but reverse some of Obama’s executive actions on immigration.
“In this polarized era, bourbon won’t change votes,” Sabato said. “It won’t produce compromise. It’ll just make them (lawmakers) more pleasant toward each other.”
Still, “Bourbon Barrel of Compromise” organizers hold out hope -- for Congress and for a McConnell-Obama bourbon session.
Just in case, they presented McConnell with a decanter filled with a one-time-only special blend created by seven distillers in honor of Heaven Hill master distiller emeritus Parker Beam, who has been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.
“This decanter is being presented to Senator McConnell in hopes that he gets a call,” said Robert Clay, co-chairman of the Clay Center and a descendant of the former House speaker and secretary of state.
White House correspondent Anita Kumar contributed to this report.