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Roll Call

Let's Get Along: House Freshmen Embrace Bipartisan Comity

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Murphy and other freshmen plan to form a bipartisan caucus to work toward solutions.

If the tea party class of 2010 was elected to stand athwart trillion-dollar deficits, yelling “Stop!,” the 2012 class seems to think it was elected to give peace a chance.

“This freshman class is going to work in a bipartisan manner. We’re not the last Congress — that was the ‘my way or the highway’ mentality. We want to work together,” said freshman Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Fla.

Murphy and Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-N.C., are leading a group of just-elected lawmakers who say they bonded at recent orientation events for new Members. When their surprising comity and good will kept coming up in conversations, they decided to make it a formal thing.

At a news conference Thursday, the freshmen released a Feb. 13 letter signed by 31 members calling for spending cuts and new revenue to “secure the fiscal health of our Nation.” A larger group of freshmen will be forming a new caucus tentatively titled United Solutions.

“I think, one, we just like each other! We really enjoy each others’ company,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell of California.

“Normally when new classes come to Congress you’ll see an imbalance heavily tilted towards Republicans or Democrats. This class, they’re almost evenly divided [in number]. And I think that played a role in us coming together,” he added.

The letter was met by a skeptical press corps, which asked whether the agreement on broad concepts would wither on the vine when talk turned to details.

“This is a framework. This is the idea that we are going to come together and begin to kick around some ideas and put everything on the table,” said Murphy, who defeated tea party favorite Allen B. West in November.

Introducing actual legislation, Pittenger said, is “really not the intent of our group.”

The letter tilts toward the GOP’s focus on spending cuts. The political significance of the movement seems to be the willingness of freshman Democrats to embrace changes to entitlement programs, which Pittenger attributed in part to a private speech given to the lawmakers by Peter Orszag in which the former Obama budget chief scolded lawmakers on the need to reform Social Security and Medicare.

But the letter’s vague language — it named no particular changes — may land it in the ash heap of endless congressional letters.

“There’s a reason the letter isn’t specific” on spending cuts and new revenues, said former Rep. Steven LaTourette, a moderate Republican who left the House in January, lamenting the polarizing climate and deteriorating bipartisanship there.

LaTourette said that while he admired the group’s efforts, “I doubt they’re gonna find allies in either party’s leadership.”

The letter calls for Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to “strengthen and preserve Medicare and Social Security” by “reducing our long-term deficit and debt issues.” It also says Congress should “promote economic growth to generate revenue” by reforming the tax code to eliminate “corporate subsidies, tax loopholes and other subsidies to provide lower rates.”

At one point in the news conference, a reporter asked the Republicans on stage whether the letter’s revenues language squared with their signatures to the “Norquist pledge” not to raise taxes, which Democrats often target as a bane of bipartisanship.

It did, Pittenger said, something Norquist himself agreed with, calling the letter “incredibly helpful from my perspective.”

Referring to the Democratic participants, Norquist said, “What they’ll find out, bless their little naïve hearts, is that lower rates are a non-starter with the president of the United States. The signers of this letter have broken with Democratic orthodoxy, with the leadership of the Senate and the White House and Nancy Pelosi. The Republican signers may sound a little naive, but they did not say they want to raise taxes.”

Deluded or not, the freshmen are certainly sincere.

Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, serving her second term representing Arizona after she was defeated by Rep. Paul Gosar in 2010, announced she would be partnering with Gosar — the very man who defeated her — to introduce a new bill this week.

“It’s still all about jobs,” she said.

This letter, added GOP Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, wasn’t just a letter.

“Not only did we sign a letter, what we did was made a commitment to truly try to work together. And the sincerity of my colleagues has been echoed over and over again.”

Meadows, a Republican whose district President Barack Obama visited Wednesday, said the cooperation was on display at the orientation events.

“What I found was, they were trying to help us with some of the language to make sure that we could sell it to our colleagues, and we were trying to help them with some of the language so they could sell it to their colleagues,” he said.

Rep. Kevin Cramer said he hoped the group’s bipartisan spirit would be an example to “senior members of the leadership,” in Washington and beyond.

“I hope that they see that we’re people that care about each other. While we love our country, we love each other. And that relationships matter.”

Rep. Grace Meng, a freshman who represents a heavily Democratic district in New York, said the freshman class’s calls for bipartisanship have, in fact, started to turn heads around town.

“A lobbyist even said to me yesterday, ‘You guys are saying it so much I am actually starting to believe you!’” Meng said.

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