Fiscal cliffs and debt ceiling fights are out. Problem-solving is in.
Members of Congress, governors and mayors from across the political spectrum joined more than 1,000 political activists Monday under the No Labels banner, calling for a series of reforms in Congress to address fed up voters and dysfunctional politics. Only weeks after a polarizing election and big fight in Congress over taxes and spending, they said Washington needs a new attitude.
"There's a huge mistrust back there. There's a feeling that we all don't want to do something that is constructive, the only way we're forced to act is with these manmade crises," said Rep. Janice Hahn, D-Calif. "That's no way to govern the country."
The gathering reflected a push from lawmakers in both parties to claim the political middle as voters increasingly view government as bitter and paralyzed. It came ahead of grappling in Congress over raising the nation's debt ceiling, which is expected to be reached in February, along with fights over delayed cuts to defense and domestic programs and the need for a new spending plan to prevent a government shutdown.
Digging in over debt, Republicans in Congress have demanded spending cuts in exchange for increasing the debt ceiling but President Barack Obama has said he won't negotiate, raising the possibility of another showdown.
About a dozen members of Congress, wearing orange No Labels lapel pins, joined with West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, a Republican who unsuccessfully sought his party's presidential nomination last year, to decry a poisonous atmosphere in Washington. Organizers said they hoped to attract about 70 members of Congress from across the political spectrum to agree to meet regularly and try to work with each other.
"The dysfunction of Congress makes our own nation dysfunctional," said Huntsman, who was joined on stage by Manchin under an orange banner emblazoned with the words, "Problem Solvers." Huntsman and Manchin, who worked together as governors, each heaped praise on each other in an appearance that almost looked like the makings of a presidential ticket.
Organizers said presidential politics is not in the offing here, pointing instead to a number of reforms to make government function more properly.
Among the proposed reforms: Requiring Congress to work five days a week instead of the typical late Monday-Thursday schedule; demanding an annual address to Congress on the fiscal condition of the nation; withholding congressional pay if lawmakers fail to pass a budget; forcing an up-or-down vote on presidential appointments within 90 days of a nomination; and changes to the rules for filibuster in the Senate that allow the minority party to stall the process on bills and nominations that have fewer than 60 votes.
"We realize this is not going to be easy. There are real philosophical differences between Democrats and Republicans that can't be papered over with mere pledges of civility," said Jonathan Miller, a No Labels co-founder and former Kentucky state treasurer. He quipped that Congress' approval ratings was "somewhere below Brussels sprouts and Lindsay Lohan although it is slightly above root canals and Duke basketball."
The meeting, held at a large ballroom in a New York hotel, felt like a bipartisan pep rally at times. Photographs of past presidents like Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy dotted the entrance and young ushers wore orange T-shirts resembling the garb of a political campaign.
Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, a Republican, addressed the group by video because he said he was attending the swearing-in ceremony of his son-in-law, a Democrat, to the Arizona state senate. "We're a No Labels family," Heller quipped. Sen. Angus King, who was elected to the Senate last fall as an independent, recounted a man in northern Maine telling him: "All my life I've wanted the chance to vote for 'none of the above' and you're it!"
In many ways, the movement is an outgrowth of the frustration over the paralysis in government. Its success will measure whether targeting political gridlock is good politics at a time when congressional approval ratings remain low.
Politicians of all stripes said the main message from the 2012 election was setting aside differences and tackling longstanding problems. But hopes of a broad agreement on taxes and spending cuts to avert the so-called fiscal cliff failed to materialize, with many decisions being delayed into this year.
Others have voiced frustration with Washington, accusing members of Congress of losing sight of what remains most important.
As Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wis., put it: "We've had enough yelling and screaming."
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