WASHINGTON — For the past three years, some Republican and Democratic lawmakers have sat next to each other during President Barack Obama’s annual State of the Union speech to Congress in a largely meaningless one-night show of bipartisanship.
Next week when Obama addresses the House of Representatives and the Senate in a joint session, 40 lawmakers from the two parties hope to add some beef: Under their official congressional lapel pins, they’ll wear orange buttons identifying themselves as Problem Solvers and displaying their pledge, “Committed to fix not fight.”
With congressional approval ratings at historic lows, the 23 Democrats and 17 Republicans say they want to move beyond mere symbolism as they tell their peers that they’ve pledged to try to end hyper-partisanship and work across the aisle to solve the country’s most pressing problems.
“We’re meeting on a regular basis, Democrats and Republicans just talking about areas where we think we can work together in a bipartisan way,” said Rep. Ami Bera, a California Democrat who defeated incumbent Republican Rep. Dan Lungren in November.
“The idea is we’ve got to move past being only Democrat or Republican,” Bera said in an interview. “It’s very evident in my freshman class. All of us got elected knowing there was an expectation that we would work together.”
Bera and his fellow Problem Solvers scored a major victory last week when Congress passed and Obama signed the No Budget No Pay Act. It raises the federal debt ceiling through May 18 while blocking lawmakers’ salaries if they fail to pass a budget for fiscal 2014, which starts Oct. 1.
Bera made the bill a central plank of his campaign against Lungren last year. While Bera preferred a tougher measure than the one that eventually passed – it holds lawmakers’ pay in escrow instead of eliminating it – the new Sacramento-area lawmaker voted for it in the spirit of compromise that he thinks is so important.
“Passing a budget is our core job,” Bera said. “It lets the public know what our priorities are and how we’re going to spend our resources.”
With the House under Republican control and the Senate holding a Democratic majority, Congress has operated without a budget for several years while passing stopgap spending bills that fund the government for shorter periods instead of moving annual appropriations measures.
At least at the start, the Problem Solvers are focused on passing a budget, reducing the deficit while avoiding the forced cuts under so-called sequestration, and addressing other urgent fiscal matters.
They’re also discussing ways to pay for repairs and upgrades of roads, bridges, sewer plants and other infrastructure that all of their states and districts need.
For now, members are steering clear of hot-button issues such as abortion, on which it will be more difficult to find common ground. An early test of their staying power could be their response to Obama’s controversial new gun-control proposals, which face adamant opposition among many Republicans and some Democrats.
The Problem Solvers caucus is a key initiative of No Labels, an advocacy organization launched in December 2010 by a group of high-powered politicians and political consultants who were fed up with Washington gridlock.
One of the No Labels founders is Mark McKinnon, an Austin, Texas, Republican political consultant who was a key adviser to the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, and John McCain in 2008.
“There really wasn’t a voice reflecting what the American people want,” McKinnon said in an interview. “They want to see Washington start dealing with our problems. They don’t care if it’s a Republican solution or a Democratic solution, they just want to see some progress.”
Jonathan Miller, a former Kentucky state treasurer and onetime head of the Kentucky Democratic Party, is another co-founder from his home base as a lawyer in Lexington.
“Most Kentuckians and other people I run into are fed up with politics and the way the parties are always fighting and nothing is ever accomplished,” Miller said. “We want to bring Democrats, Republicans and independents together to change the dynamics.”
Sen. Mark Begich, a Problem Solver and an Alaska Democrat, said he’s worked with Republicans in recent months to advance legislation authorizing Coast Guard operations and expediting liquefied natural gas exports to NATO nations and Japan, causes he believes are important to both his state and the nation.
“I didn’t get everything I wanted, but at the end of the day, we all got 80 percent of what we wanted,” Begich said. “To me, that’s the way business should be done in Washington.”
Among other major players in No Labels are Republican Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor and 2012 presidential candidate, and Democrat Tom Daschle, a former Senate majority leader from South Dakota.
At the group’s “Making America Work” national conference last month in New York, thousands gathered at strategy sessions and pep rallies. Among them were 12 Problem Solvers, Democratic and Republican lawmakers who marveled that it was the first time they’d sat down with members of Congress from the other party to brainstorm about working together to confront the most urgent issues.
Miller graduated from Henry Clay High School in Lexington, named after a legendary lawmaker who crafted several measures that helped hold off the Civil War for a decade.
“His nickname was the Great Compromiser, but now ‘compromise’ is seen as a dirty word,” Miller said.
The Problem Solvers insist that theirs is not a centrist group, but rather one that includes lawmakers with viewpoints from across the political spectrum, from liberal to conservative.
Hoping to grow to 75 members by year’s end, they view themselves as a bipartisan and potentially more powerful version of two caucuses whose ranks have shrunk with the rise in partisanship: the Blue Dog Democrats and the Main Street Republicans, each of which bring together moderate pragmatists willing to compromise.
“Our potential is more meaningful because we have members of both parties,” said McKinnon, who is advising the Problem Solvers. “In Congress, if you can bring together 40 or 50 – or hopefully 70 or 75 – votes of Democrats and Republicans, that’s a substantial number of votes that can swing a big issue.”
In another sign of the group’s increasing influence, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s “Make Life Work” address Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, billed as a major piece of the Republicans’ ongoing rebranding effort, was a strong echo of the No Labels slogan “Make America Work.”
The No Labels office in downtown Washington features two towering posters of Republican President Ronald Reagan and former Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill, who are models for the group because of their ability to work together and reach compromises despite their political differences.
The office has the frenzied feel of a political campaign headquarters, with dozens of mainly young people blogging, tweeting, talking on phones, conducting research at computers and holding strategy meetings. Large pieces of white butcher paper line the walls, some with names of “Problem Solver Targets” – members of Congress the group is trying to persuade to join the initiative.
When Obama enters the House chambers Tuesday evening to deliver his speech, Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, will proudly wear his Problem Solvers lapel pin.
“It says that we are willing to sit down and put the good of the country and the good of the people ahead of the good of our party, our party affiliation or our political well-being,” Manchin said. “We were sent here to do a job, and it wasn’t just to make sure that we stay here.”
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