Sweating out their differences on Capitol Hill - The Buffalo News
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Sweating out their differences on Capitol Hill

A new muscle-crushing, sweat-inducing workout has infiltrated the inner sanctum of Congress: the members-only gym of the House of Representatives. It is called, simply, the “Markwayne Mullin.”

Named after Mullin, the 36-year-old Republican representative from Oklahoma and former professional mixed martial arts cage fighter who leads the predawn, bespoke workout, it is a “mix of CrossFit and circuit training,” he said.

On a recent Thursday, at 6:30 a.m. in a gym in the shadow of the Capitol, a bipartisan group of seven House lawmakers gathered for Mullin to put them through the paces, as he does almost every morning when Congress is in session. Representing the Republican side: Reps. Kevin McCarthy of California, the majority leader; Todd Rokita of Indiana; Aaron Schock of Illinois; and Jason Smith of Missouri. And on the Democratic side: Reps. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts.

The only sign that the huffing, grunting gym rats were members of Congress and not just early morning fitness enthusiasts were the two men wearing suits and earpieces, members of McCarthy’s security detail. (Normally, the group meets in the House gym, but to allow a reporter and a photographer to attend, they briefly took over DCBFit, a locally owned training studio).

After a series of sit-ups with a twist, in which pairs pass a medicine ball back and forth, Mullin offered a brief compliment before urging the group into their next exercise: “You guys owe me 30 burpees,” he said, referring to an exercise that involves launching from a push-up position into a upright leap.

McCarthy, clad in a ratty Stanford T-shirt and leaning against a boxing bag to catch his breath, wondered aloud: “At once? Or two sets of 15?”

“Or three sets of 10,” Mullin shouted back. “I don’t care. Just get it done.”

In an era of increasing gridlock and vitriol between the two parties, the House gym has emerged as one of the few places where members can set politics aside and achieve some sweat-infused bipartisanship.

The across-the-aisle friendships, solidified over sets of box jumps, already are paying dividends. Gabbard and Schock – two of the fittest members of the group – co-founded the Congressional Future Caucus, a group intended to bring lawmakers together to work toward long-term solutions on issues that affect the next generation. The caucus, Gabbard said, “was really born from the conversations we had in the gym early in the morning, talking about the things we were finding frustrating.”

The two also have introduced a bipartisan immigration bill that would permanently extend a visa program for immigrant investors.

Rokita said he is more likely to look to his gym buddies on areas where they can find common ground: “None of what we’re working on is going to solve the national debt, but we can work around the edges,” he said. Gabbard agreed, explaining, “Spending that hour in the morning, you have fun, you have a good time, and you get to know people in a way you otherwise wouldn’t.”

Rokita praised Gabbard, a member of the Hawaii Army National Guard who has served two tours of duty in the Middle East, as “just a cool lady,” and said that he’s also enjoyed working out with a member of the dynastic Kennedy clan.

“He’ll smirk and deny this, but it’s historic,” Rokita said.

The regimen itself, however, is politics free. “It’s just a rule that’s unsaid: No one ever, ever brings up politics,” Mullin said. “It’s just people who have something in common. They want to live healthier.”

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