On Sunday afternoon, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) made their way from Washington, D.C. to New York — sitting next to each other on the Acela train.
“We're not in the same seat, not on top of each other, but side by side,” Huntsman joked, speaking to The Huffington Post on a joint call with his train buddy. “Republican and Democrat … Imagine that.”
Huntsman and Manchin, a former West Virginia governor, were traveling to New York for Monday's launch of the next phase of No Labels, an organization that launched in 2010 aiming to break through the partisan gridlock that so often characterizes governance in Washington, D.C.
Since that first start, No Labels hasn't exactly been known for its effectiveness. As a Sunday Yahoo News story noted, it has been called such things as “patronizing” and the “kumbaya caucus” — possibly because its centrist branding seemed out of step with a political era in which parties are dominated by their margins.
As Congress continues to snipe its way into one crisis after another, No Labels is refocusing with a clearer agenda, with Manchin and Huntsman at the helm as (unpaid) chairs. No Labels is focused on local organizing, and 1,300 citizens from across the country were in attendance at the Marriott in New York on Sunday as the group announced its next steps. Big political names such as Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D) spoke, and Huntsman's daughters sang God Bless America.
Organizers are clear that despite No Labels' previous reputation, it's absolutely not centrist. “There's a misnomer of sorts that it's either a third-party movement or it's a bunch of centrists trying together to change the world,” Huntsman said. “It's not … This includes a vast diversity of ideologies.”
As part of this new push, No Labels has identified 25 “problem solvers” in Congress — including Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.) and Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) — who have all committed to monthly meetings together, according to No Labels founder and former Kentucky state comptroller Jonathan Miller. Organizers hope to have between 75 and 100 “problem solvers” in Congress identified by the end of the year.
Some organizers say that many “problem solving” representatives feel that the partisan tone is set by House and Senate leadership, and so far, when presented with the option, the leadership has chosen not to partake in No Labels. “The leadership aren't wrapping their arms around us, and they aren't joining us,” Miller said. “But we're hopeful that when members approach them with ways to make Congress work, the leadership will feel compelled to take their ideas and run with them if they want to stay leaders.”
The group is also pushing a legislative agenda that focuses not on the nation's hot-button issues, but rather on a variety of ways to help unstick Congress. No Labels is pushing filibuster reform, a law that would require members of Congress to pass a budget before picking up their paychecks, bipartisan seating arrangement plans and bipartisan monthly mixer meetings so lawmakers can get to know each other.
When explaining the point of such a shift, Huntsman and Manchin use themselves as examples. “This is what everybody should be doing more of,” said Manchin, speaking of his travel companion. “Talking to each other more and finding the common ground.”
The pair spent their train ride doing what they'd done throughout their governorships: talking. “Our conversations have been about a reflection of the culture we both come from, the culture of problem-solving as governors,” Huntsman said. “We never encountered an issue … that we couldn't resolve by bringing people to the table. We've got to get back to those days when we can get people around the table … who are focused not on cheap partisan point-scoring but on problem-solving.”
Huntsman and Manchin both became governors in 2004. As soon as they were elected, Manchin said, they began attending National Governors Association meetings. The culture there was collegial, and “if we did something that worked well we would share it with the next person,” Manchin said — regardless of his or her political orientation.
So Manchin was disappointed two years ago when he started off in the U.S. Senate and saw things didn't work that way on Capitol Hill. “I said, Jon, you can only imagine,” Manchin said. “I've been here two years and as of today we have not had an organized bipartisan meeting where we sit down with our colleagues on the Republican side … to talk about our problems.”
Huntsman was upset to hear that. “As governors, whether Republican or Democrat, you work on healthcare reform, entitlement reform, you work on jobs, you work on education and infrastructure,” he said. “You focus on results because your very existence depends on it.”
So he and Manchin think they can change the culture by bringing a dose of the collegial relations they had among their class of governors. “You can imagine how that's going to change the whole culture in Congress,” he said. “These people are willing to check their egos at the door, are willing to put country before party.”
And to Manchin, as a senator concerned with the looming debt ceiling fight, timing is everything. “We need a big fix,” he said.
The 112th Congress was likely the least productive one in U.S. history. A poll released last week found that Americans favor such nuisances as cockroaches and Nickelback over their elected officials.
According to Angus King, the former governor of Maine who was recently sworn in as a first-term Independent U.S. senator, it wasn't always this way. In the 1970's, “problem solver” King said in an interview, he served as a staffer on the Senate labor committee (currently known as Health, Education, Labor & Pensions).
“I saw it work,” King recalled. “I saw members of both parties sit around a table, agree, disagree, but ultimately they put the country first and found ways to find solutions. I'm going to do whatever I can in my small way to move it back toward a solution type of place.”
So it's only fitting he'll be sitting on the Rules Committee.