Power lunch: US senators transfixed by Bear Cam

Katmai bears fish at Brooks Falls. Photo: NPS

Thousands of people around the world are again thrilling at the sight of brown bears fishing at Brooks Falls, now that the Katmai National Park has fired up Bear Cam for another season. Even U.S. senators got in on the joy, and that’s not the only Alaska delight the senators sampled from afar.

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It’s been a heavy week in Congress, and the Senate isn’t known as a fun-loving place on a normal day, with all the formal tedium, the perpetual observations about absent quorums and time expiring.

But here’s something you won’t see on C-SPAN: Almost every Thursday, Republican senators meet behind closed doors, just outside the chamber, for a theme lunch. Whichever senator is hosting brings food and treats from his or her home state. It’s been going on since the 1970s. This week, it was Sen. Dan Sullivan’s turn.

“You can almost smell the aroma right now,” Sullivan teased from the Senate floor. “We’re baking it in the kitchen here. Salmon, halibut, reindeer sausage.”

And there was more. Caesar salad from Alaska-grown kale. Potato salad from Alaska spuds. Ice tea with Alaska mint. And rhubarb. Some of the veggies came from Meyers Farm in Bethel.

“Arguably, it’s a giant brag session amongst their colleagues,” Sullivan spokesman Matt Shuckerow said. He said the Thursday lunches are an opportunity for comradery, policy discussions and a chance for the host senator to highlight issues of importance to his state.

The big hit, though, at the Sullivan lunch was the two large screens showing live Katmai Bear Cam. Sullivan says the senators could hardly focus on anything else.

“You can have the leader of the U.S. Senate up talking and you have all the senators looking, and they’re not looking at Mitch,” Sullivan said. “They’re, like, looking at the bears. It’s hilarious.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski agreed: Nothing could compete with video feed of bears lunging for salmon.

“All of this important stuff is being talked about and no one is listening,” Murkowski said, “Because we’re – ‘There! He got it! He got it!'”

Party favors are customary at these lunches. Sullivan gave out goody bags that included salmon jerky and a can of Alaska-brewed beer. The hosts aren’t allowed to spend government money on the lunch. Shuckerow says Sullivan used campaign funds.

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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.