They come from opposite political parties and disagree on some issues, but two members of the U.S. House of Representatives are hoping to show that bipartisanship and civility are still alive in Congress. And they've chosen a district town hall meeting, once ground zero for political discord during the health care overhaul debate, as their proving ground.
Rep. Christopher Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, is scheduled to appear at a town hall meeting Sunday in Champaign, Ill., part of the congressional district represented by Republican Rep. Timothy Johnson. In return, Johnson has agreed to appear with Murphy at a similar event in Connecticut later this year.
"I have no idea what to expect on Sunday. People could be throwing things at us or it could be wonderful and civil," Murphy told The Associated Press. "I hope people pay attention to it because people do need to know there is a resistance movement in Congress to the partisanship people see in the news."
Murphy and Johnson are two of the four leaders of the Center Aisle Caucus, a group of representatives formed about seven years ago to help foster camaraderie and cooperation among members of the two political parties. Currently at about 40 to 50 members, the caucus is ramping up its efforts to let Americans know "there are members of Congress who actually want to act like adults, want to interact with each other, and want to stop the bickering," Johnson said.
The U.S. learned this summer when the nation's debt rating was downgraded that political acrimony can have real consequences for the country, said Johnson, who's been in Congress 11 years. Rating agency Standard & Poor's pointed out how "the differences between political parties have proven to be extraordinarily difficult to bridge" in their statement outlining their reasoning for the downgrade.
"That was a specific basis for downgrading our debt, which obviously has dramatic effects on us," Johnson said. "So, at the end of the day, civility has more than just human relations, it has concrete effects and frankly that's what we're trying to convey in this (town hall) meeting."
Downgrades usually lead to higher borrowing costs because investors want more interest if they're taking a bigger risk.
The Center Aisle Caucus is best known for helping to break the tradition of Democrats and Republicans always sitting apart during the State of the Union address. The members also meet monthly for informal dinners, where they typically have some politically moderate speakers, such as tech industry executives, former administration officials, academics and former members of Congress. About two months ago, the caucus organized a special night at the National Archives for House members and their families to get to know one another.
The caucus now hopes the bipartisan town hall meeting idea will catch on.
"Our intention is not to create some defined, unified policy agenda because that would scare people off if they thought they were joining a group where they had to agree to a certain set of principles. What we want is for more Republicans and Democrats to create relationships and then allow those relationships to turn into productive activity down the line," said Murphy, who is working on legislation with a GOP member of the group, Rep. Jo Ann Emerson of Missouri, to legalize the importation of prescription drugs from Canada.
Despite polls showing there's a desire among voters for more compromise in Washington, they're not necessarily electing candidates that might be open to cooperation. The moderate to conservative Democrats known as the Blue Dogs saw their numbers decline from 54 to 25 after the 2010 election. Others have announced plans to retire or face tough re-election battles after their congressional district lines are redrawn during redistricting.
Murphy, who's running for the U.S. Senate in 2012, acknowledged that what the caucus is doing "is definitely countercultural." He said some colleagues have resisted joining.
He said one of his conservative Republican friends told Murphy he supported the group's efforts but didn't join because the caucus has the word "center" in its name. The member said Republicans back home would accuse him of being "centrist," moderating his views.
Murphy's office said the 5th District congressman is the only caucus member from Connecticut.
Connecticut Rep. John Larson, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, applauded Murphy and Johnson for holding the joint town hall meetings with constituents.
"All members of Congress should work together for the American people. It's healthy, good for the country and much-needed," said Larson, who has tried on his own to reach out across the aisle to GOP colleagues. He hosted Republican Rep. Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania in January to discuss the importance of high-speed rail. Larson was scheduled to visit Shuster's district over the weekend to continue the discussion.