Politics & Government

Over Chinese food, Center Aisle Caucus pursues long-forgotten art of civil debate

WASHINGTON — In power-hungry Washington, where partisan politics always rules, 58 members of the House of Representatives are promoting the quaint notion that Democrats and Republicans still know how to engage in civil debate.

These members of Congress say that federal lawmakers should refrain from personal attacks, that they should engage in "real debate" instead of relying on prewritten, partisan speeches; and that they should try to get along and even agree on some issues.

Of course, you'll never see such stuff on television.

Every few weeks or so, usually after the last vote is cast on a Monday night, members of the Center Aisle Caucus head to the Hunan Dynasty restaurant on Capitol Hill to practice their radical way of life in private. There, over sushi and spicy beef and shrimp, they ponder and debate the big issues of the day, including war and peace, far from the TV cameras that incite so much division two blocks away on the House floor.

"We're never going to agree on a solution to end the war over a Chinese meal," said Democratic Rep. Steve Israel of New York, one of the caucus founders. "What we're trying to do is build faith with one another and establish a dialogue. Political risk on both sides of the aisle requires trust, and these dinners are designed to create a deeper bipartisan trust in one another."

While the caucus can boast of no major accomplishments, its members say it's noteworthy that some in Congress are just trying to get along. The fledgling group has four co-chairs: Israel, Republican Reps. Tim Johnson of Illinois and Jo Ann Emerson of Missouri and Democratic Rep. Dennis Moore of Kansas.

Israel said that he and Johnson often worked out together in the House gym, where collegiality still rules.

"We began questioning why Democrats and Republicans could have spirited but respectful competitions in the members' gym, but as soon as we left the gym and went to the floor of the House, we resembled an elementary school auditorium that had run amok," he said.

Emerson said most members believe that political parties need to "quit the bashing" and that the caucus has been very careful in expanding, looking for newcomers who really want to work across political lines.

Most of its members, she said, are pragmatic, not ideological: "That makes a gigantic difference."

Israel said the debate in Washington has become far too poisoned, with Americans forced to watch "Democrats yelling at Republicans and Republicans yelling at Democrats." He said that C-SPAN, the cable network that covers Congress, "has become a channel that requires a parental advisory before kids are able to watch."

While the caucus has received scant media attention since it was formed two years ago, Israel sees an upside for members of Congress who operate away from the spotlight.

"If you take them outside the angle of the C-SPAN camera and put them in a back room at a Chinese restaurant, the tenor of the discussion changes dramatically," he said.

Israel said the caucus got a kick-start in suburban Kansas City in the summer of 2005, when he joined Emerson and Moore for an event on congressional civility at Johnson County Community College. Israel said he expected to see 15 people show up on a lazy summer day. When hundreds turned out, organizers knew they had struck a chord.

"I think people in this country are just really fed up with all the partisanship they see on television and they read about in the papers," said Moore.

The group has no formal meeting schedule but assembles whenever a member has an idea. For the past few months, the focus has been on Iraq. And in recent weeks, the caucus has met with an Iraqi who risked his life as a translator for the military and with Iraq's ambassador to the United States.

The event with the ambassador was historic. "It was the first time he ever had Chinese food," Israel said.

Emerson said she's discovered that political differences can be lessened when opponents take time to talk to each other. And she said the public is expecting members of Congress to find common ground despite their political differences.

"I'm very excited about it," she said. "If everybody would just focus for a minute not on being re-elected but on doing the right thing, we would accomplish a whole lot more."

It might be a novel approach, and one that will never get many headlines, but Israel says it's the only approach that makes any sense.

"Think about the Cold War — it was the bipartisanship, the bipartisan approach of a John F. Kennedy and a Richard Nixon and that helped end the Cold War," Israel said. "Think about World War II. It was the political leadership of FDR and Harry Truman and the military leadership of Dwight D. Eisenhower. There was always great bipartisanship."