By Ben Terris
A group of Democratic and Republican members meet regularly to discuss legislation--and it didn't take the threat of a government default or a law to get them to do it.
No, this isn't the super committee mandated by August's Budget Control Act to cut the deficit. It is part of a series of small efforts, spearheaded mostly by freshmen, to build a working relationship between the parties. The get-togethers began as breakfast between Reps. Jim Renacci, R-Ohio, and John Carney, D-Del. In the roughly four months since, a regular meeting of about a dozen members has sprouted.
Renacci said that the group, which is split almost evenly politically, likes to keep a low profile and that members are hesitant to publicize their participation. Nonetheless, some regulars are Reps. Rick Berg, R-N.D., Mike Kelly, R-Pa., Jim Himes, D-Conn., Mike Quigley, D-Ill., and Peter Welch, D-Vt.
"These first nine months in Congress have had a lot of frustration," Carney said. "But there's hope. If our group can sit down, hear each other out, and come up with solutions we all agree on, that says something. Can we move the needle nationally? I don't know, but it has to start somewhere."
The group, which has no official name but that Carney schedules as the "bipartisan breakfast club" in his calendar, has discussed everything from repatriation to helping underwater homeowners keep their houses. Renacci and Carney point to Renacci's Employ Act as the type of bipartisan bill the group can produce.
The measure, which Renacci drafted before forming the breakfast club but is now reflective of the group's thinking, would offer financial incentives to businesses that hire people on unemployment. His bill would, temporarily, allow employers to hire workers for about 20 percent of their normal cost, Renacci said. The unemployed would get back to work while getting at least 110 percent of their unemployment checks, and it would trim 10 percent off the government's unemployment-insurance expenses, he said. Plus, it would have the added benefit of increasing tax revenue from the newly re-employed.
"This is the kind of bill that Democrats and Republicans can agree on, if we just talk with each other," Renacci said.
The bill's cosponsor, Rep. Hansen Clarke, D-Mich., said: "There's not just one way to come up with good ideas for the country. It's not just the progressive caucus's way. We have a lot to learn from and a lot in common with the other side."
Bipartisanship seems out of place in the 112th Congress, which has been marked, thanks to its huge influx of new GOP representatives, by a movement to the right and sense of hyper-partisanship. However, the breakfast meetings are just one example of lawmakers trying to ease the tension.
Last week, Reps. Nan Hayworth, R-N.Y., and David Cicilline, D-R.I., began circulating "Dear Colleague" letters to form "the Common Ground Caucus," which aims to "encourage interactions, both professional and personal," among members "regardless of their party or affiliation."
Hayworth said that her group would be different in that it will largely be social. Its first event is on Monday at The Top of the Hill restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue.
"Any time we're talking with each other in a friendly way, it's conducive to the body as a whole," she said. "You can't be an effective member of Congress unless you can reach out successfully to people who may not share every aspect of your party platform."
But that doesn't necessarily mean members must check their beliefs at the door.
"The president has decided to spread a partisan tone as he thinks about reelection," Hayworth said. "We have a job in the Congress to provide a counterbalance to that."