By Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In a political test of the spirit of Christmas, warring Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Senate are getting ready to exchange holiday gifts.
No one predicts that the Senate's first-ever "Secret Santa" gift exchange, set for mid-December with a $10-per-present limit, will unleash unprecedented bipartisan tidings of comfort and joy.
But many hope it will at least promote some peace and goodwill on Capitol Hill after a year of bitter fighting over taxes and spending, a near-shutdown of the government and the loss of the country's coveted AAA credit rating.
"At first, I thought it was too gimmicky," said Senator Mike Enzi, a Republican who has a reputation for big bipartisan deals." "But then I figured, it won't hurt. It's worth a try."
First-term Democratic Senator Al Franken, a fiery liberal and former television comedian, hatched the idea and enlisted freshman Republican Senator Mike Johanns, a soft-spoken conservative, to help him promote it.
So far, 58 of the Senate's 100 members have agreed to take part in the gift exchange, which will take place at a party with eggnog and cookies.
In preparation, each participating senator -- 37 Democrats and 21 Republicans -- reached into a Santa hat and pulled out the name of a colleague who will receive their gift. For the most part, Democrats will get Republicans gifts and vice versa.
While senators are to keep their gifts secret, as well as who they are buying it for, a number of them said potential presents include an Arkansas paper weight, New Mexico chili, a Nebraska coffee cup, a recycled pair of socks and a gift certificate to a discount store.
"We use to have Secret Santa parties in elementary school," Franken told Reuters. "It was a good excuse to have a party, meet kids and make friends."
NO CHRISTMAS MIRACLE
Franken figured the same concept might work in the Senate, which is routinely gridlocked by partisan fights, but Johanns said don't expect a Christmas miracle.
"I don't have any great expectations that we will suddenly fix Medicare and Social Security and the budget," he said. "But I think it could be used to ease tensions up here."
Lawmakers once worked and socialized together and found common ground for landmark deals on matters from civil rights to education. But in the past 20 years, they have spent less time in Washington and more time back home, waging what have become year-around campaigns that have fostered partisan gridlock.
Democratic Senator Tom Udall, whose father and uncle both served in Congress, is looking forward to "Secret Santa" with fond memories of Christmases past.
"The attitude was completely different back then," Udall said. "The feeling was after you were elected you represented everyone and simply did what was best for the country. We need to do whatever we can now to break the hyperpartisanship."
With polls showing Americans dismayed by the partisan gridlock in Washington, Democratic Senator Ben Nelson was cynical. "A lump of coal," he said. "That's all we deserve."
No member of the Senate leadership, who are scrambling to wrap-up the legislative session, signed up and a senior aide cringed when asked about "Secret Santa."
"With the jobless rate at 9 percent, senators shouldn't be in a room patting each other on the backs and having drinks," the aide said. "That's not a picture we need to project."
Paul Sracic, a political science professor at Youngstown State University, does not expect much from the initiative.
"This conflict between the two parties is not just a misunderstanding that can be solved by them getting to know each other a little better," he said.
Franken traces his belief in the "Secret Santa" gift exchange to the day as a boy that he drew the name of a tough kid who intimidated him on the school playground.
"I got him a gift and we became friends," Franken said.
(Editing by Ross Colvin and Bill Trott)