Lawmaker helps colleagues sweat out their differences

The New York TimesJuly 6, 2014 

WASHINGTON — 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 says.

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. 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 situps 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, 49, 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 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, are already 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, 33, 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 have also introduced a bipartisan immigration bill that would permanently extend a visa program for immigrant investors.

Rokita, 44, 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."

Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the Republican party's 2012 vice-presidential nominee, previously garnered attention for leading members in an intense P90X workout, which includes a rigorous mix of jumping, martial arts, strength training, cardio and yoga.

But after watching Mullin do his own workout, several of the P90X aficionados slowly defected, preferring the spontaneity and originality of Mullin's routine, which he makes up each time, pulling from his years as a high school and college wrestler, and later a professional fighter.

Now, the P90X guys share space with Mullin's crew, though the P90X group still controls the stereo. "I do hear that P90X soundtrack getting louder and louder every day," Rokita said.

Mullin's results have been impressive. Smith, 34, has already met his original goal, losing just over 60 pounds since January. "It's the Markwayne Mullin diet," he said. "Fish, fruits and vegetables."

McCarthy joked that he also adheres to the diet: "I eat all that, then I add ice cream and other things, too," he said.

Others presented as slightly more fit. Schock, 33, who previously did P90X with Ryan and once graced the cover of Men's Health shirtless with a rippling six-pack, arrived Thursday drinking a GNC workout mixture, and took off his T-shirt to reveal a skintight gray tank top that hugged his famous abs.

"Oh, now the muscles come out," Mullin teased. "Hot flash!" He briefly mock fanned himself, but then got down to business.

Mullin likes to begin every morning with a warm-up run. "We try to run as hard as you can for four minutes," he said.

Up next: What he calls "three-minute abs." "You absolutely kill your abs in three minutes," said Mullin, who has nine different abdominal workouts he cycles through. "You leave them on the floor."

The workout is painful — not so much in the moment as hours later, when muscles "you haven't worked in a while or didn't quite know existed," as Gabbard put it, become excruciatingly sore. (Full disclosure: This reporter did about 20 minutes of the hourlong workout, and found herself unable to move several parts of her body for the next two days.)

"There were a couple of times in the beginning where I was like, 'Oh, my God, you came back the next day?'" Rokita recalled. "I could not move, literally."

At one point Thursday morning, Rokita and Smith, who had been slowing down with their medicine ball situps, dissolved into laughter as Rokita collapsed onto his back on the mat. Mullin marched over to yell a few words of encouragement, and they let out a collective groan.

"Markwayne says starting anything is easy," Smith said, during a brief break. "It's the sticking with it that's tough."

Then, he headed off to the next set of exercises. After all, Mullin was waiting.

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