By Franco Ordoñez
After less than three months working in the nation's capitol, U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger of Charlotte is helping lead a bipartisan group of freshman lawmakers on an ambitious -- some say long-shot -- mission to reshape Washington.
The freshmen describe themselves as a kind of antidote to Congress's Class of 2010, known for its influx of combative tea partiers.
This year's class says it's time that members put down their rhetorical firearms and had a few drinks together.
They want to get to know one another's families and build rapport so it's tougher to demagogue one another, as is the current practice on Capitol Hill. Maybe then, Pittenger said, they can actually work together and fix the nation's fiscal problems.
"We need to humanize this place," Pittenger, a Republican, said in an interview. "There is so much acrimony that you hear back and forth. It's disturbing. We have to work together as people. You don't have to compromise your convictions to have relationships."
Approval ratings for Congress remain at historically low levels. In Charlotte and across the country, polls show a strong appetite for those in Washington to find common ground on solutions to the nation's challenges.
Some 400 people crowded a UNC Charlotte auditorium in November to hear current and past members speak at a Charlotte Observer/PNC Bank forum on gridlock in Washington.
But not everyone is convinced a group of freshmen can pull off the kind of collaboration that senior members have failed at year after year.
Congressional scholars say strategic voting and entrenched ideologies -- not to mention money -- have made it increasingly difficult for rank-and-file members to break the logjam between party leaders.
Pittenger, a Charlotte real estate investor and former state senator, took over representing the 9th Congressional District from Republican Sue Myrick, who was not known for reaching across the aisle.
On Pittenger's office coffee table is a copy of the Rev. Billy Graham's biography and a President Ronald Reagan picture book. But on the wall is a photo of Pittenger with former Republican secretary of state and retired four-star general Colin Powell, who was known for reaching across the aisle and taking heat for it.
Pittenger did not have a reputation in the state senate of working with Democrats. But some did see him as a dealmaker who could tap into his large networks of business allies -- Democrats and Republicans -- to back him on issues he cared about. He once got 3,000 doctors from around the state to go to Raleigh to lobby for a bill he introduced to cap medical malpractice awards.
Working in the then-Democratic-controlled General Assembly proved a good training ground, Pittenger said, for finding ways to get deals done. He said Democrats ran the General Assembly with an "iron fist." In order to get something done, Pittenger said he sometimes had to take his name off his own initiatives, including measures to combat Medicaid fraud and find savings through consolidations and fixing inefficiencies.
"I didn't care who got the credit," Pittenger said. "When I went to (former) Speaker (Jim) Black on our reforms for restructuring and consolidation, I took in some principles from Deloitte & Touche, the national accounting firm, and the speaker said, "Robert, if you don't have your name on this, I can do a lot more with it. I can get it done a lot easier. I said, "Of course, Speaker. Let's fix the problem.'"
Some of Pittenger's former General Assembly colleagues wonder why he didn't do the same in North Carolina. David Hoyle, a former Democratic state senator, said Pittenger was not known to compromise.
"Time will tell," Hoyle said. "Maybe he's been healed. I did not have that experience with him when he was in the Senate. And I would have reached out if I had had that opportunity. But it was his way or no way or the highway. He was very, very difficult to work with."
Before taking his House seat, Pittenger participated in freshman orientation meetings after the election where experts were brought in to discuss critical issues. Those meetings in Colonial Williamsburg and at Harvard gave Pittenger renewed appreciation for bipartisanship, he said. He met with Democrats such as Rep. Patrick Murphy of Florida and found that they agreed on many issues.
Thirty-five freshmen, including 13 Democrats, signed the letter to leadership calling for a "new era" in Congress, saying it's time to work together to "secure the fiscal health of the nation." New GOP Reps. George Holding of Raleigh and Mark Meadows of Jackson County also signed the letter.
They've since formed a new freshman caucus, called United Solutions, to work on shared goals, including promoting economic growth, preserving Medicare and Social Security, combating Medicaid fraud, reducing inefficiencies and cutting spending.
"We're going to look at the entire government," Pittenger said. "How can we pare down the scope, size, cost of government? The taxpayers are footing the bill, and it's a huge weight on our economy."
On Wednesday, they will hold one of their first caucuses to review proposals for reforming Medicare.
It's often said in Washington that the practice of members rushing home to their districts on weekends -- instead of spending time with each other at events or on the golf course -- has damaged rapport and made it more difficult to do their work.
Pittenger blames a lot of Washington's struggles on the increasing use of the jet plane.
Murphy said it's time to for members to spend time together outside of work.
"It's a little tougher to say some of the rude language that has been used in the past when you know their family and kids," Murphy said.
Congressional scholars say anything that gets members talking to one another across the aisle is healthy, but voters should not expect dramatic changes.
Similar bipartisan efforts have been tried in the past, but congressional scholar Thomas Mann said none will work unless party leadership can break through ideological differences that have blocked constructive work. He cited the Republicans' anti-tax pledge promoted by Americans for Tax Reform's Grover Norquist as one example.
"It's perfectly fine for conservatives to err on the side of taxing less, but to elevate it to a sort of fundamental religious commitment prevents any kind of reasonable policymaking," said Mann, a Brookings Institution scholar who co-wrote a book about political gridlock called "It's Even Worse Than It Looks."
The freshman group should be taken seriously, especially if its numbers grow and its potential influence increases, said Sarah Binder, a George Washington University political scientist.
But she said they have a lot to overcome, and it's not just ideological differences.
There is also a lot of "tit for tat," she said, that the parties play based on the fact that control of Congress and the White House can quickly flip in one election. Sometimes, she said, members vote in a partisan way for potential political advantage, not based on ideology.
"The idea is that if we just hold on long enough we have the capacity to regain unified party control, so we're not going to take a half a loaf," said Binder, who studied the history of congressional gridlock for her book "Stalemate."
Although Pittenger has praised the work of House Democrats working with him, he's been tough on other Democrats, most notably President Barack Obama.
Pittenger has largely followed the script of House Republicans who have blamed the Obama administration for scaring the public and mishandling the across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration.
He's also joined the growing number of Republicans criticizing Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's efforts to boost the economy, which some Republicans say emulates the Obama administration's stimulus efforts.
Charlotte's other House member, Democratic Rep. Mel Watt, applauded the effort to increase dialogue but cited the Republican leadership's constant fights with Obama.
Watt asked whether the House freshmen will be able to convince their party leaders to work together.
"It's really going to have to come by some serious discussions with the leadership," he said. "And if out of one side of your mouth you're telling the public you're going to try to be bipartisan, and out of the other side of your mouth you're telling your leadership that you're not going to compromise on anything, I guarantee the latter expression is going to have a lot more impact than the former expression."
Pittenger said he understands the challenges but added that any meaningful reforms will take time.
"Any goal that's been accomplished has been because somebody had an idea and conviction and they pursued it," he said.