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WASHINGTON — Ten days into the government shutdown in October, dozens of lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans, stood shoulder to shoulder and earnestly pledged to talk less, listen more, and work together to solve the nation’s problems.
Joined through the efforts of a nonprofit called No Labels, the assembled politicians posed behind signs urging one and all to “Stop Fighting. Start Fixing.”
Predictably, perhaps, the moment of packaged, stage-managed camaraderie proved fleeting. Some participants almost immediately returned to lobbing partisan attacks in the House. Florida Democrat Joe Garcia compared the Tea Party movement to the Taliban. North Carolina Republican Robert Pittenger branded President Obama a “monarch” for refusing to alter his new health care law.
So much for bridge-building in Washington.
No Labels — which now counts 87 representatives and senators spanning the ideological spectrum as members — is among several tentative, sputtering efforts inside and outside of Congress formed to break down the capital’s no-compromise mentality.
“This is not a bunch of moderates intent on overtaking the world,’’ said former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who ran in the Republican presidential primary in 2012 and is a cochairman of No Labels. “This is an attempt to get beyond the anger and the acrimony and the finger-pointing.”
In many quarters of Washington, the response has been: Good luck with that.
No Labels has been unable to advance, in any meaningful way, a single item from its relatively modest list of goals. Critics dismiss it as window dressing, with some congressional staffers comparing it to a high school civics project and going as far as drafting memos to their bosses urging them not to join.
Even its own members admit the group has a long way to go. They say their most important accomplishment to date has been to simply convene both parties for monthly breakfast meetings at which Republicans and Democrats listen to each other — or at least feign to listen — instead of labeling the other side as crazy.
“Some members are understandably skeptical of No Labels. It’s not an answer, but it does reflect the heart of a problem, which is our inability to find common ground,” said Representative Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat who helped form the group. “If we do some smaller things that are within reach, it’s a lot better than doing nothing.’’
Other lawmakers agree that baby steps are worthwhile, and there are several, less formal attempts to get people talking.
A bipartisan group of 14 senators, called the Common Sense Coalition, led by Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican, sprang out of a regular dinner gathering of women senators and has continued to meet since the shutdown.
Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, along with Senator Mike Johanns, a Nebraska Republican, and Senator Angus King, a Maine independent, have also organized a bipartisan group of 11 senators who are former governors accustomed to working across party lines and are expanding their group to include former mayors and county executives. And a growing number of moderate Blue Dog Democrats and The Tuesday Group of moderate Republicans are now meeting once a month.
A captain of a bipartisan women’s softball team, comprising both senators and representatives, says it all adds up to hope for a better atmosphere in Washington.
“These bipartisan groups can only help the dialogue and encourage people in Washington to get out of their trenches,” said Senator Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican, who led the fund-raising softball team in its annual game, in June. “We need to replicate that as much as we can.”
Awkward first meeting
In today’s Washington, two men are lionized as beacons of bipartisanship, and both happen to be dead. No Labels pays life-size tribute to both former President Ronald Reagan and House speaker Tip O’Neill with black-and-white photographs that hang in its modest Georgetown offices.
O’Neill, a liberal Democrat from Massachusetts, and Reagan, a Republican icon, sparred publicly. O’Neill called Reagan the most ignorant man who had ever occupied the White House and “a cheerleader for selfishness.” Reagan returned the favor, likening O’Neill to Pac-Man, a “round thing that gobbles up money.”
But privately, they were cordial — friends after 6 p.m. — who would drink together at the White House. Despite ideological differences, and their own bouts of government shutdowns, the two men were able to meet in the middle to pass legislation, including a landmark tax-code overhaul in 1986.
It speaks volumes about today’s toxic Washington atmosphere that an organization needs to form around the idea of encouraging such relationships.
Nancy Jacobson, a powerful Democratic fund-raiser and Washington operative, recognized the need and founded No Labels in 2010. Things got off to an awkward start, with just eight members of Congress at the group’s first meeting in 2012, high-profile lawmakers who didn’t know each other or know what to expect.
“It felt like a sixth-grade dance,” said Jacobson, who in 2004 had also started Third Way, a think tank for moderate Democrats.
To recruit new members, Jacobson patiently explains to lawmakers that representatives and senators of vastly different ideological stripes can be cordial, even friends — if given the opportunity to shed their partisan armor and get to know one another.
Confidential No Labels meetings are a place, she said, where open-minded leaders can discuss facts in a neutral way, without partisan spin.
“It’s not about people who are centrists,” Jacobson explained during an interview in the staff kitchen of the No Labels office, where she is a full-time volunteer. “There’s a new paradigm afoot. We really just got to have people of good will, who care deeply about the country no matter what their political stripes are, to want to be part of a process to build trust so they can negotiate and solve problems.”
No member of the Massachusetts delegation — all Democrats — has joined, although Representative Stephen Lynch did take part in the photo op during the shutdown. Other recruits have opted out, a decision Jacobson says she understands.
“If there’s progress with other ways, I’m all for it. In fact, we don’t need to do all this,” she said. “But there is no progress. These problems are intractable right now. The old way is not working, and unless we figure out another path, we’re going to be stuck.”
As her alliance of lawmakers grew, Jacobson unveiled her agenda: a nine-point plan to make government work with legislation centered around seemingly modest fixes such as moving to a two-year budgeting cycle, withholding congressional pay if lawmakers fail to pass a budget, and curbing agency travel expenses by replacing meetings with video conferencing.
The only bill that has advanced so far is a weakened version of “No Budget, No Pay.” The bill, which President Obama signed in February, directed each chamber to adopt a budget for fiscal 2014 but did not require a budget conference. Members’ pay would be held in escrow if their chamber did not pass a budget, instead of being docked permanently, as the No Labels group originally proposed.
“The bills we have are not nuclear medicine, that is true, but they are about things we’ve said we wanted to do but haven’t done for a long time,” said Representative Kurt Schrader, an Oregon Democrat who cochairs a No Labels working group of lawmakers called the Problem Solvers. “They are things Republicans and Democrats can rally around and learn to work together on. They’re pretty basic, and not threatening to anyone’s election.”
Jacobson said the group’s ambitions will grow with time. Early next year, she said, No Labels will unveil a plan calling for leaders to set a strategic agenda for the country centering on shared goals. Jacobson recruited Huntsman to help lead the effort, along with her former boss, Evan Bayh, a Democrat and former senator from Indiana who, saying he was disgusted with Washington dysfunction, retired in 2011, and Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat.
Already the group, which raised $2.3 million in 2012, has enlisted more than 500,000 citizen activists to support the movement.
“People typically look at me cross-eyed, saying how could you pursue such a lofty aspiration?” said Huntsman, who has recently begun hosting a Saturday morning radio show to give the group’s message a national platform. “If you can’t prove a concept by a group of bipartisan legislators coming together, building trust, and passing legislation, there’s no way you can be effective as a movement.”
Taking a cue from the past
On a stifling hot morning in July, lawmakers paraded onto an outdoor stage, the Capitol dome looming in the background. One by one, like contestants in a Miss America pageant, congressmen and congresswomen from the Golden State, the Peach State, the Empire State and elsewhere proclaimed the pressing need for legislators to work together, as they wiped the sweat from their brows and upper lips, shirt sleeves rolled up to their elbows.
“Ladies and gentlemen, help is on the way,” Representative Reid Ribble, a Republican from the Badger State of Wisconsin and cochairman of the Problem Solvers group, told the audience.
“Getting something done is far more important than party or politics,” said Jim Matheson, a Democrat from the Beehive State of Utah.
“This is a sign that dysfunction in Washington is starting to thaw,” said Sean Duffy, another Republican congressman from Wisconsin.
Duffy, a former cast member of MTV’s “The Real World: Boston” who was elected to Congress in the 2010 Tea Party wave, turned out to be one of the most vocal Republican opponents of Obama’s health care law. He is not the only No Labels member intent on gutting Obamacare.
In August, Representative Mark Meadows, a Tea Party Republican from North Carolina who touts his No Labels membership as evidence of his ability to work in a bipartisan manner, spearheaded an effort to tie the continued funding of government to dismantling the health law. That demand to link the two issues — adopted by scores of GOP lawmakers — led to the government shutdown.
No Labels leaders said the group’s strength lies in the broad ideological spectrum of its members — its ability to accommodate lawmakers like Meadows and Vermont’s Welch under the same roof.
No Labels is the “only game in town” for members of different political stripes to regularly come together for a meal — the modern-day solution to the tradition of lawmakers “going to war on the floor and getting beers at night,” Schrader said.
“We frankly can get back to that kind of camaraderie,” Schrader said. “We have some pretty extreme members that are pretty volatile, but they want to be Problem Solvers.”
Every morning during the 16-day government shutdown, about two dozen members of the Problem Solvers would gather in the Rio Room in a windowless basement at the Tortilla Coast, a Tex-Mex restaurant three blocks from the Capitol.
Some days, they met twice a day over coffee and fruit platters, brainstorming proposals to put forth, how they could help the other party save face, and ways to push leadership to end the gridlock. Smaller groups met in lawmakers’ homes and offices.
But the Problem Solvers could not come to a consensus about a path forward. Some wanted to repeal a medical device tax required by the Affordable Care Act as a compromise to Republican demands to gut the president’s health care law. Others thought that would be giving up too much — or not enough.
At one point during the impasse, Senator Collins, the moderate Maine Republican, was invited to meet with the group to discuss the medical device compromise proposal. She did not seem especially impressed.
“I think No Labels is very well intended, but I have not found them to be particularly effective in achieving their goals,” Collins said. “I think they’re still finding their way.”
Representative David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat and No Labels member who had started a similar, but much smaller bipartisan group of lawmakers in 2011, agreed that more substantive results would take time in such a diverse coalition.
“In the end, we just very actively suggested that default would be a terrible thing for the country and that we had to reopen government,” Cicilline said, referring to the hastily-arranged photo op amid the shutdown. “We kept it very general because there were some disagreements about specific proposals.”
Many of the members of this basement group of Problem Solvers were idealistic freshmen lawmakers elected with the mandate to break Washington’s partisan politics, but who held too little clout to influence much of anything — a challenge they readily acknowledge.
“It’s kind of a new group of folks that are trying to carve some type of reasonable, pragmatic solution-driven thinking around here,” said Ribble, the Wisconsin Republican.
“There’s going to be a time and place for the Problem Solvers to begin to exert more pressure on leadership,” Ribble said. “However, we have to show and document first that we’ve got trust amongst ourselves.’’
Some rank-and-file members said that leadership on both sides were leaning hard on them not to “get out front” during the shutdown, stifling their fledging compromise efforts. But they promised to keep meeting, since that’s about all they can do.
“Maybe that’s where the problem is, at the top, at the leadership level,” said Dr. Ami Bera, a freshman Democratic congressman from California and No Labels member. “Somebody has to pull this country together. If that isn’t happening at the top, then certainly there are plenty of rank-and-file members of Congress that want to get something done and are not afraid to get out there.”
Tracy Jan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeTracyJan.