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Denver Post - Changing the Conversation: Temper the Vilification in Congress


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By Senators Lisa Murkowski and Mark Udall (Dem. - Colorado)

Our country is facing serious challenges that continue to be left unresolved. Stalemates on issues from energy independence to wholesale tax reform to getting our economy on a sound footing threaten to undercut our nation's strength, yet Congress has been unable to reach a consensus on legislation to move us forward.

One reason for the gridlock is members of opposing parties work in completely separate orbits. Lawmakers rarely interact on a bipartisan basis, and instead are locked in competition. We believe the resulting partisan rancor is holding us back as a nation, and it's why we're leading an effort to find a way to bridge the divides and work together.

As members of congressional families, we know first-hand the tone in Washington hasn't always been so negative. Our fathers both served in the legislative branch -- combined, their tenures spanned the Kennedy administration through 9/11 -- and it gives us a unique perspective on Congresses past. The Congress they served in was more collegial, which contributed to getting major things done. Civil rights, the space program, the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, Medicare and the end of the Cold War are among the many accomplishments reached through bipartisan cooperation.

Then, unlike now, members of opposing parties interacted more often -- out of necessity. With the long and expensive airplane trips making weekend trips home more difficult, many stayed in town. This resulted in more legislators interacting and understanding one another.

Let's contrast that with where we are now. One profound reality of present-day Congress is many members barely know one another, and our routine is structured to keep us divided. Every week, we gather for a partisan lunch with colleagues only from our own party. In these lunches, we plot out our plan of action to defeat the other side during the next seven days. Our senior staffs attend their own partisan meetings with roughly the same agenda.

This partisan dysfunction is broadcast for the American people each year when the president delivers his State of the Union address. Even though it's broadcast early in the Alaska evening, you've seen it play out. By tradition, lawmakers sit divided by party, with one side cheering and applauding the president, while the other sits silent and sullen.

We believe such "border rivalries" should be limited to hockey rinks, basketball courts or the gridiron.

Last year, following the shooting of our House colleague Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, we and 18 others led an effort to ask Congress to abandon partisanship for the State of the Union address and sit together. That rare moment of true unity in the chamber changed the conversation from what divides us to what we have in common.

This year, we're calling on Congress to permanently end the tradition of divided seating. We've been heartened at the support we've received from more than 160 Capitol Hill legislators who agree with us. But we believe we must go further to build relationships and find ways we can work together. To start, we're calling on our colleagues to look closely and thoughtfully this year at the issues and identify opportunities and forums to build on potential areas of policy agreements.

This, too, is a small step. But it's an important one we believe could help clear some of the partisan rancor in Washington.

Anyone who works in an office knows people are more productive when they communicate well and work together. That applies to Congress as well. Consider the so-called "supercommittee" -- the bipartisan and bicameral group of 12 members of Congress tasked with finding $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction last year. The members were able and amiable policymakers with decades of experience in Congress. Yet many met for the first time when the committee gathered in September. This division helped set up the committee's failure to come to an agreement.

To be clear, party lines are important identifiers. Democrats and Republicans have different ideas of the role of government and approaches for our country's future. But Senator Stevens used to say "The hell with politics; let's do what's right for Alaska." There's no reason that Capitol Hill can't --or shouldn't -- adopt that mindset and do what's right for the entire country. While bipartisan seating and policy forums aren't going to end hyperpartisanship overnight, they're a step in the right direction. If members of opposing parties can start talking together, we can negotiate together. And if we can negotiate together, then maybe we can actually start dealing with the problems the American people sent us here to solve.

Let's begin to change the tone and see if it leads to a better outcome for all.

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