Scanning the crowd Thursday outside the U.S. Capitol, Rep. Tim Griffin saw lawmakers he’d faced in legislative skirmishes over health care, immigration and dozens of other topics where the gulf between Republicans and Democrats in Washington is deep and wide.
But Griffin, a Republican from Arkansas, and 78 other representatives and senators hadn’t gathered together to point fingers or debate. Instead, at a rally organized by a group called No Labels, the lawmakers pushed for a package of bills they said could gain bipartisan support and pass both chambers of Congress.
“I disagree with a lot of these folks about just about everything,” Griffin said, “but we are looking for common ground.”
Griffin and the other lawmakers – 36 Republicans, 42 Democrats and one Independent dubbed “Problem Solvers” by No Labels – rallied around nine bills designed to streamline government operations and save money. Among other things, the bills would require Congress to pass a budget before members get paid, stop automatic increases based on inflation to government agency budgets and cut federal departments travel budgets by 50 percent, relying on teleconferencing for meetings instead.
On Thursday, as inspirational orchestral music blared from loudspeakers, the lawmakers filed onto a stage set up on a grassy park across the street from the Capitol. Twenty-five-foot signs that read “No Labels. Make Government Work,” served as a backdrop as lawmakers stepped up to a microphone one by one to pledge their allegiance to bipartisanship.
“We are here to put our country back together again,” said Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif.
“Let’s get it done together,” shouted Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, R-Pa.
When it was Griffin’s turn, he was accompanied by John, his 3-year-old son who is spending the week in Washington.
“I am proud to be working together to find common ground for baby John and all Americans,” he told the crowd of about 300.
Griffin has contributed a bill the No Labels offerings called the Buy Smarter and Save More Act. It would require government agencies to pool office supply purchases. He estimated that combining purchases would save taxpayers $10 billion a year.
Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., is also a member of the group but did not attend the event.
The 12 co-founders of No Labels include political veterans of both parties, including Kiki McLean, a former staff member for former Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., and Mark McKinnon, former adviser to President George W. Bush.Other co-founders include the chairman of the Coca-Cola Foundation, Lisa Boarders, and former U.S. Comptroller David Walker, who served under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
The group has taken heat from both conservatives and liberals. In 2010, conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh said the group should rename itself “No Brains.”
“They’re not interested in the middle,” he said. “They’re interested in defeating conservatism.”
Richard Eskow, a fellow with Campaign for America’s Future, a liberal advocacy group, said No Labels’ agenda has been to benefit upper-income taxpayers and cut social programs. The group, he said has moved away from previous efforts to cut Social Security and reduce the deficit and is now taking on smaller issues Eskow deemed “mom and apple pie stuff.”
“They ran into a buzz saw on those issues, so they’re taking another tack,” he said in an interview.
Mark Schmitt, a fellow at the liberal Roosevelt Institute, said any hope that the group would succeed in loosening the partisan vice-grip in Congress was “wishful thinking.” He said No Labels reflected a broad weariness with the state of politics.
“People just get sick of the constant Armageddon mode” on Capitol Hill, he said. “And they’ve gotten tired of the politicians who express it most crudely.”
Griffin strongly identifies as a conservative member of the GOP. He’s a member of the House Republican whip team and vice chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
On many issues, such as immigration and taxes, he said it will be difficult to find agreement between the parties. But he said the No Labels effort is an attempt to have Democrats and Republicans meet and work together on smaller issues, before, he hopes tackling more contentious legislation.
“Conversation begins with an introduction,” he said. “This is about building.”