ABC News(WASHINGTON) — What if, instead of duking it out on the floors of the House and Senate in contentious debates and late-night filibusters, the historically divided United States Congress was forced to work together to fulfill certain basic, primal needs — say, gathering food and resources to share on a deserted island?
On a new show, two senators from opposite sides of the aisle are forced to do just that for one week.
The new reality show Rival Survivor takes Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., from C-SPAN to The Discovery Channel to prove it’s possible for the two divided parties to work together, albeit in the confines of a deserted tropical island.
In a recent interview with ABC News, Flake said he and Heinrich first came up with the idea during a late-night budget vote, each swapping their own stories of survival and spearfishing.
“We started talking jokingly at first about going away and proving that a Democrat and Republican could work together on an island, and it just got a little more serious after that,” Flake said.
Heinrich added, “The more I just thought about how challenging it’s gotten to work together and cut through the partisanship on Capitol Hill, the more I thought it would be a nice contrast to see a Republican and a Democrat struggling, but working together at the same time.”
The venture ultimately required much more than simply spearfishing.
The two were dropped off the side of a boat about a quarter mile from the small island, where they then had to swim through shark-infested waters, fighting against stiff currents and waves, to get ashore.
“There wasn’t a lot of time to second-guess things at that point,” Heinrich said. “When you’re in deep blue water and you can’t see the bottom, you better keep swimming.”
While Flake called it “the most picturesque island in the world,” he said life on the small strip of land was not without its obstacles. “The weather was tough, [we] had to build a shelter,” Flake said, explaining that the two decided to venture for more resources on a larger island about two-thirds of a mile away.
“You realize that these incredibly picturesque places are picturesque because we’re used to experiencing them with a bottle of water in our hand and sunscreen and sunglasses,” Heinrich added. “And you quickly realize when you don’t have those things, they don’t feel quite as picturesque.”
The biggest challenge for the pair was securing the most basic human need: water.
“We wanted this to be an authentic survivor experience, and it was,” Flake said.
With water scarce, the senators relied heavily on coconuts as a source of liquid sustenance while filming the series.
“Needless to say, I think we’re probably both over the coconut water fad at this point,” said Heinrich jokingly. “You start to really have a craving [for] water, just fresh water.”
Over the course of the trip, the two fished for food, coexisted with large coconut crabs, and even swam with sharks. But perhaps their most meaningful collaboration, aside from building their own bipartisan bond, was the time spent discussing ways to ease congressional gridlock.
“We talked a lot about both substance and individual policy issues — but also about process, and why it is that things are as polarized as they’ve become. Frankly, there’s not a lot of trust in Washington,” Heinrich said. “I don’t think you have to agree with people to be able to work together. But you have to trust them.”
When it comes to changing that trust paradigm, both senators suggested that Democrats and Republicans need to spend more time together to help build more productive relationships.
Flake said Congress must “have everybody get together” to work past the deep partisan divides. ”I think people will see through the differences and see that at least we can work together in process and bring things to the floor even if we vote differently in the end,” he said.
“I’d love to see us be there five days a week irrespective — through the weekend sometimes — for three weeks on, and then you go home and you tour your state for week,” said Heinrich. “Some of the most productive times I’ve seen are when everybody was together in the same room. We need more of that.”
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