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Can this Delaware senator save civility in Congress?

With prayer meetings and personal greetings, Sen. Chris Coons has carved out a role trying to soothe the acrimony that has become the defining feature of American politics -- but it's an uphill climb.

Sen. Chris Coons (left), a Delaware Democrat, speaks alongside Sen. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.) during an interview at the The Atlantic's 'The Constitution in Crisis' forum in Washington on Oct. 2, 2018. Coons has become a voice for civility in Congress, and has often cooperated with Flake.
Sen. Chris Coons (left), a Delaware Democrat, speaks alongside Sen. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.) during an interview at the The Atlantic's 'The Constitution in Crisis' forum in Washington on Oct. 2, 2018. Coons has become a voice for civility in Congress, and has often cooperated with Flake.Read moreCliff Owen / AP

WASHINGTON -- Chris Coons still hasn’t gotten over that rant by Lindsey Graham. But he’s trying.

Coons, a Democratic senator from Delaware, sat just a few chairs away from Graham in September when his friend, a South Carolina Republican, unleashed a fiery tirade that went viral, turned the tide of the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation, and left bitter feelings that linger.

It’s a personal challenge for the devout Coons, who has carved out a role trying against the odds to foster some civility in Congress.

“I’ll be blunt, I can’t forgive Lindsey Graham on my own — I can’t. I will never get over that,” Coons said recently at an event on easing partisanship, hosted by the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington. “I wasn’t watching this on TV. I was 10 feet away.”

But Coons — who has a divinity degree from Yale, previously served as an elder in his Presbyterian church, and still preaches on occasional Sundays — turns to religion.

“Faith, and looking at the two of us from a Kingdom perspective, is what gives me the opportunity to forgive,” said Coons, a 55-year-old from Wilmington with a cheery demeanor and dry wit.

His recent speech and interviews show a glimpse of how one senator is trying in small ways to soothe the acrimony that has become the defining feature of American politics, overshadowing every major public debate.

“Chris is in many ways a throwback to a kindler, gentler time,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.), one of his closest collaborators.

Coons, along with Sen. James Lankford (R., Okla.), leads a weekly bipartisan prayer breakfast. At the height of the Kavanaugh fight, he crafted the episode’s one brief moment of cooperation, sealing a deal with Flake to allow for an FBI investigation into sexual-assault claims. In April he voted “present” in a committee so Sen. Johnny Isakson (R., Ga.), could attend a friend’s funeral without his absence creating a temporary tie and slowing the nomination of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), was near tears afterward.

They are often small or temporary gestures: The Kavanaugh fight still stings. The Pompeo vote didn’t change the outcome. It just extended a courtesy to a friend. Yet it drew national headlines.

“That says all you need to know about where we are, the fact that would be seen as such a singular moment,” Flake said. He recounted how this past week, even a traditional dinner honoring departing senators was divided in two: one for Democrats, one for Republicans.

The recent funerals for President George H.W. Bush and Sen. John McCain have shown a national yearning for decency and respect — and exposed fears that those traits have faded, replaced by fury and intransigence.

“I didn’t think it could get worse than in 2010, but it steadily has,” said Coons, who was elected to the Senate that year amid the anger of the Tea Party wave, and had served in county government for a decade before that. “I’ve never seen anything like this and I worry that I don’t see a pathway toward it getting better.”

‘A virus in our society’

Those fears go beyond the Capitol, said Carolyn Lukensmeyer, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse.

Since the middle of the 2016 election, she said, people have been calling, seeking help.

Businesses complained of declining cooperation between workers on opposite sides of the Trump-Clinton divide. Clergy members said some congregants refused to sit together. Psychologists saw clients complaining about politics and news affecting their mental health. Some people just called for help at home.

Weeks after the election, one woman called Lukensmeyer saying her two daughters, both at Ivy League colleges in New England, weren’t speaking. Verging on tears, the woman asked for suggestions “that would just help us have a family dinner together” on Thanksgiving.

Lukensmeyer noted the American Psychological Association’s 2018 stress survey: 62 percent of adults said the current political climate increased their stress.

“This is now like a virus in our society," she said. “This is now way beyond what’s happening in Washington, D.C., and how politicians treat each other. This has now seeped into our families, our communities, where we work together, where we pray together.”

Lukensmeyer was part of a panel at the New York Avenue church when Coons spoke in late November. The senator, around 5-foot-5 with a half-circle of sandy hair around his head, stood behind an eagle-shaped lectern in a church where Abraham Lincoln prayed during the Civil War.

“In the spirit of Lincoln, let me say that Donald Trump has been wonderful for my prayer life,” he deadpanned as laughter rippled through the audience.

Building trust behind the scenes

Coons took solace in the idea that America has been through worse — the Civil War, depressions, world wars (though he conceded that such comparisons speak to the dire current state).

He described ways lawmakers can heal, pointing to the prayer breakfast, at which about two dozen senators gather each week to read from Scripture and sing hymns. A dozen are regulars. Others come and go. The group, Coons said, includes some of the Democrats' most liberal and visible members.

Each week, one senator describes the role of faith in his or her life, revealing “exactly the things you wouldn’t want an opposition researcher to ever know,” Coons said.

One senator once talked about his parents’ divorce. Another about his father dying of cancer. Another about suffering injuries in war. A more complete picture of colleagues emerges. Often, they cry.

“We do two things that I never see us do otherwise,” Coons said. “We listen to each other and we trust each other, and I think therein lies the very simple path toward bridging our partisan divides.”

There are two other places where he sees senators interacting that way: the Senate gym and on trips abroad, when they spend long flights and meals together.

“What do these things have in common? No lobbyists. No media. No staff,” he said in an interview.

Flake and Coons have traveled together to 12 countries this year alone.

“There’s an old saying that you never question somebody’s motives if you know the names of his children, and that’s the kind of relationship that we have,” Flake said. Together, they recently have tried unsuccessfully to advance a bill to constrain Trump’s ability to fire special counsel Robert Mueller, head of the investigation into Russian election interference.

But while bipartisan bills on big issues flounder, Coons also collaborates with Republicans on small, inoffensive, and sometimes symbolic measures just to develop goodwill. His calendar has every senator’s birthday listed, so he can wish them well.

As some on the left urge more confrontation, a potential issue when Coons faces reelection in 2020, he said most people he hears from, including strong Democrats, want cooperation.

“And I will often say to audiences: Don’t be surprised if I upset and disappoint you, because that’s what working across the aisle requires," Coons said.

But he sees “a long road” to a functional Congress. He worried that November’s election wiped out many House Republicans and Senate Democrats inclined to reach for the center.

Still, when Graham introduced a Senate resolution Thursday condemning Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Coons was one of three Democratic cosponsors.

It was a step. But the Kavanaugh scar remains.

“That remains a point of some tension,” Coons said, “but, frankly, we have other things that we can and should work on together.”