U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard will have a leading role in a bipartisan coalition to reduce government waste and inefficiency as the freshman Hawaii Democrat positions herself as a problem solver in Congress.
No Labels is expected to announce a package of reform legislation this morning backed by more than 70 House and Senate Democrats and Republicans. The theme is "Make Government Work!" and organizers hope it will set an example for how lawmakers can build trust and work together.
Gabbard said she has heard a common message from voters in Hawaii about the hyperpartisanship in Congress.
"And that's one of frustration from people from every island and every community basically saying, "We need you guys to work together and break through the partisan rhetoric and gridlock and get things done,'" the congresswoman said in a telephone interview Wednesday from Washington, D.C.
Gabbard said a model is the partnership between the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and the late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who worked in tandem for more than a generation on behalf of their home states.
"Those types of partnerships based on respect have largely been lost," she said. "And that's really the goal here -- is to bring together people from all parts of the country, from both parties, to build relationships and actually work together in a meaningful way."
Gabbard's political philosophy is relevant given her metamorphosis.
The 32-year-old publicly shed her social conservatism on gay marriage and abortion rights when she prepared to run for Congress last year.
Her startling national trajectory is rooted in her personal story as an American Samoan-born, Hindu, military combat veteran who won an unlikely primary victory over former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann.
Gabbard did not establish a substantive public-policy record during her one term in the state House -- where at 21 she was the youngest in state history -- or during her abbreviated, two-year stint on the City Council.
Asked to define herself politically, Gabbard, a vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said: "It's putting country first."
Gabbard said she senses frustration among lawmakers.
"That Congress is not doing more, that the huge issues that we need and should be focusing on -- creating jobs, seeing how we can encourage innovation and reduce our deficit, making sure that we're really, truly providing a quality education to our kids -- I think that the frustration comes from the fact that we're not making meaningful change on a daily basis on these issues.
"Saying that, I think it's important to focus on what we can do. And this effort to work in a bipartisan way is critical to that."
No Labels, which formed in 2010 to encourage a more bipartisan approach to governing, has attracted politicians from both major political parties. The co-chairmen are former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who unsuccessfully sought the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, and U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
The group has previously recommended legislative and policy changes intended to improve the way Congress and the presidency function, including withholding the pay of lawmakers if they fail to pass a federal budget, filibuster reform, up-or-down votes on presidential appointments and fast-track legislative authority for the president.
"Everybody plays a role. Everybody plays an important part in ensuring that we're all listening to each other and working on these issues together," said Clarine Nardi Riddle, a co-founder of No Labels and a former chief of staff to former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut.
"I have this expression that we haven't had enough practice at working together on the Hill. And it's kind of like exercise. If you don't exercise, you're out of shape, right? And we're out of shape about working across the aisle and solving problems."
While the concept of bipartisanship is popular among many voters, some Democrats in Hawaii are suspicious because of the Republicans and moderate Democrats who have campaigned on bipartisan themes to help obscure conservative positions that are out of step with the electorate. Former Gov. Linda Lingle, former U.S. Rep. Charles Djou -- both Republicans -- and former U.S. Rep. Ed Case -- a Democrat -- ran as bipartisan problem solvers in unsuccessful campaigns last year.
In her primary campaign, Gabbard won over many progressives who thought Hannemann was too conservative to represent a traditionally Democratic 2nd Congressional District once held by the late U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink, a liberal icon. U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, who vacated the district when she ran for Senate, was a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
For some progressives, Gabbard still carries the burden of her family's political history. Her father, state Sen. Mike Gabbard (D, Kapolei-Makakilo), and her mother, Carol, a former member of the state Board of Education, have been among the leading opponents of gay marriage. Gabbard shared her parents' views until her military tours with the Hawaii Army National Guard in the Middle East caused her to re-evaluate her position on gay marriage and abortion rights.
Josh Frost, a progressive activist, said Gabbard has done a good job during her first six months in Congress but cautioned that the "jury is still out."
Bipartisanship, Frost said, can be overrated. "We need more Democrats who are willing to hold the line on progressive issues," he said. "We need more left-leaning Democrats to make a strong case for progressive values."
Other Democrats, speaking privately, marvel at the national attention Gabbard has received given her inexperience and thin policy resume. Gabbard has made several appearances on national talk shows, has been a featured speaker at national political events and was even the subject of a glowing splash in Vogue magazine.
"There is a little stardust in her eyes," one longtime Democrat said. "You get elected here."
Gabbard said she, too, is surprised by the attention. The congresswoman said she has used the spotlight as an opportunity to put Hawaii in the national conversation.
"And that's where I think it's important as our political leadership changes now in Hawaii, as we're seeing the unique challenges of not having Sen. (Daniel) Akaka and Sen. Inouye and all the seniority that they had, I think we've got to be creative to make sure that people understand across the country -- here in Congress and elsewhere -- why Hawaii is so important and why Hawaii's voice needs to be heard," she said.