Written by Jamie Lovegrove
WASHINGTON — It began with a 5 a.m. planning session over coffee Tuesday morning in San Antonio’s Mi Tierra Cafe. It ended almost 36 hours later with a brisk walk up the steps of the U.S. Capitol with just 30 minutes to spare until votes Wednesday evening in the House of Representatives.
What happened in between served as a 1,600-mile display of unadulterated bipartisanship that captivated a divided nation’s attention on social media for two full days of debate, singalongs and doughnuts — a whole lot of doughnuts.
The bipartisan road trip was prompted by snowstorms along the East Coast. The hundreds of flight cancellations on Monday and Tuesday stranded Reps. Beto O’Rourke and Will Hurd in San Antonio.
So in a moment of inspiration, the El Paso Democrat and San Antonio Republican opted to use the opportunity to spread some bipartisan good will by renting a Chevy Impala and driving all the way back to Washington, livestreaming the whole trip.
They dubbed the event a “bi-coastal town hall” — Gulf Coast to East Coast — and took policy questions from thousands of commenters on Facebook Live. They spent much of Tuesday debating a range of hot-button issues, from health care to foreign policy, veterans affairs to the federal hiring freeze.
By Wednesday afternoon, the congressmen had tired of responding to repeat questions that they’d already answered dozens of times previously during the trip.
“There’s 25 hours of programming that you can go back and watch that’s saved forever,” O’Rourke told viewers who showed up late to the party, instead taking time to chat with family and more members of Congress.
Dozens of other politicians on both sides of the aisle called in to chat with the Texans on speaker phone as they got wind of the road trip, from Sen. John Cornyn of Texas to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Each time a guest called in, O’Rourke and Hurd asked them whom they would choose from the opposing party to drive across the country with — and many sounded open to the prospect.
Back in Austin, members of the Texas state legislature expressed interest in getting involved, too.
The trip attracted an avalanche of media attention, earning stories in The New York Times, Washington Post, BBC, People Magazine, The Atlantic — even landing the congressmen on the front page of The Dallas Morning News.
They picked out actors to play each other in the movie version of the road trip: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Hurd and Ryan Gosling as O’Rourke.
Even Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, took note of the burgeoning town hall and tuned in for a while.
“This is a great use of Facebook Live for civic engagement,” he commented. “Good luck making it to DC on time!”
Every step along the way, the road-tripping congressmen picked out appropriate tunes for the ride. “Walking in Memphis” by Marc Cohn blasted as they approached Tennessee. The lawmakers turned on “The Final Countdown” by Europe as they came down the final stretch of their journey and approached Washington.
No good road trip would be complete without some high-quality food along the way. Though the congressmen had to limit their stops in order to make it to Washington on time, they did take a few minutes to pull over at Whataburger, Gibson’s Donuts in Memphis and a Chick-fil-A on the last leg home.
Though the lawmakers were familiar with each other from their past few years together in the Texas congressional delegation, they began their journey with stilted small talk. But by the time they reached Virginia, Hurd and O’Rourke looked like old college buddies back together again, living out a full-fledged bromance.
“I’m getting separation anxiety,” Hurd said as they approached Washington.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., offered to try to hold the vote open as long as possible if the road trip ran a couple minutes late, but there turned out to be no need. After stepping on the gas, the Texans made it to the Capitol with more than enough time to spare.
Supporters, reporters and a man wielding a large Texas flag greeted the congressmen as the Impala arrived on the grounds of the Capitol. They walked onto the House floor in time to vote on a bill related to a reservoir in Oklahoma. The road trip was already paying off: Both members voted in favor of the legislation, albeit an entirely uncontroversial one.
“I should spend more time with my colleagues. I learned that from this trip,” O’Rourke told the assembled crowd as he and Hurd emerged from the car. “This is a guy I can work with.”
A few hours later, once the rest of Congress had departed for the evening, Hurd and O’Rourke took to the House floor for a joint, 26-minute colloquy recapping their journey and sharing some of the lessons they learned.
O’Rourke showed the piñata that the staff at Mi Tierra had gifted them with at 5 a.m. the previous day, which had become something of a mascot for their travels, and he explained that there were two reasons for the trip.
“One was to make sure we could get to work,” he said. “But the other reason was for a Democrat and Republican to get together, get to know each other, understand the issues before this Congress from each other’s perspective, and see if we couldn’t find some common ground.”
On both counts, the journey was an unequivocal success.
“I got to learn a lot about the gentleman from Texas,” Hurd said. “I’d like be able to call him my friend, my battle buddy now, having spent so much time in a Chevy Impala with him.”
The Texans left their colleagues with some food for thought about what the road trip may reveal about how they should approach the legislative battles ahead.
“I hope that this trip and the response that the American people across these great states showed is an example to our colleagues that bipartisanship is a real thing,” Hurd said, “that people care and want to see folks working together, to stop retreating to their tired corners and instead try to talk about what we need to do to do the work of the American people.”
They thanked their own staff members who had helped facilitate the trip, the thousands of viewers who had tuned in, the friends and family who had offered words of encouragement, and their colleagues in the House who had expressed a new willingness to reach across the aisle.
“This is a good moment for our state,” O’Rourke concluded. “This is a good moment for this Congress.”
The two Texans yielded the floor, shook hands and adjourned the House together.
Reprinted from Dallas Morning News.