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.