NEW YORK - Even as lawmakers in Washington continue to ramp up the partisan rhetoric on upcoming fiscal fights, a smaller group of politicos gathered in New York City Monday to rally for bipartisan solutions and waxed poetic about compromise.
Led by former Utah governor and Republican presidential primary candidate Jon Huntsman and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, the group 'No Labels,' which was formed in 2010 but fizzled in influence, seeks to capitalize on the public's widespread disappointment with congressional dysfunction. The group is pushing general principles, such as putting 'country' over political party and increasing truth and accountability in political discussions.
But No Labels is also supporting a couple of specific issues, such as instigating a five-day congressional work week, an annual, televised fiscal report to Congress, and a measure called 'no budget, no pay' that would freeze congressional salaries until a federal budget is passed.
"We are pathetically served by what's happened in Washington," Huntsman told reporters. "The idea is that we can actually move the needle. It's not such a revolutionary concept but it's so desperately needed in the country today."
Leaders agreed that one of the most difficult challenges facing their efforts is the reluctance of members of Congress to sit down with their colleagues from across the aisle. But forging those bipartisan relationships is key to melting away gridlock, they said.
"You know how hard it is to say no to a friend," Manchin said.
Joining Manchin and Huntsman were 11 of their congressional colleagues – five Democrats, five Republicans, and one independent, who provided first-hand testimony about the importance of relationship building.
Rep. Scott Rigell, a Virginia Republican, said he had no idea some of his Democratic colleagues are just as concerned about the deficit as he is. Negotiations change, he said, when you no longer "question the motives of those with whom we disagree."
In order to make meaningful change, though, the members of Congress pleaded with the audience, about 1,500 of mostly students, to lobby their members to join No Labels. A system of gerrymandered House districts forces members of Congress to take positions that are more extreme than moderate, to protect themselves from challenges from within their own parties. So unless they hear from constituents pleading for deal-making and compromise rather than clinging to immutable principles, members have no cover to act, the lawmakers said.
"It's only going to happen when the public says we need to get this done," said Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Illinois. "The problem is we're not hearing from the vast majority that just wants to get things done. People want it to happen, but we need to hear it from more people. It does make a difference."
Traditionally, though polling shows Americans favor compromise, it's the voters on the extremes that most often lobby lawmakers because the issues are those that they are passionate about.
"That's the problem we have right now – the middle is working so hard to survive in today's world they don't have the time to get involved. I'm asking them to take the time to get involved," Manchin said.
But the lawmakers didn't absolve themselves of all responsibility for pushing the movement forward. There are about two dozen members of Congress, hailing from the ever-shrinking pool of moderate districts, who have joined No Labels so far, but more are necessary to make it an effective voice, says Mark McKinnon, a No Labels co-founder.
"I think after this week we'll see more," he said, adding that if the group could grow to about 75 it would be a critical mass.
Rep. Janice Hahn, a California Democrat, said her immediate goal is to "bring a friend" to the next No Labels meeting on the Hill.
Maine Sen. Angus King, a two-term governor just elected to Congress, is an independent who will caucus with Democrats. He said he's not sure if the group can build itself into an effective force.