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Activist group seeks end to partisan dysfunction in Congress

Democrat Joe Manchin, left, in a file photo from January, 2006, and Republican Jon Huntsman in 2012.

The sight was unfamiliar enough to produce a mild jolt of excitement: 10 members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, sitting on a stage together, in public, talking about ways to solve problems.

Just two weeks have passed since hyper-partisanship led to a showdown in Washington that nearly triggered a series of automatic spending cuts and tax increases. A week from now, a fresh battle will begin when a newly inaugurated President Barack Obama faces down a bitterly divided Congress.

On Monday, however, there was a small step away from confrontation. A group of U.S. politicians and more than 1,400 other people came together at a Manhattan hotel under the rubric of an organization called "No Labels." Its goal: to prod members of Congress to work together on the nation's business.

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Such an aspiration risks appearing hopelessly naive in today's Washington. Nevertheless, No Labels has drawn endorsements from 25 members of Congress and four senators from both parties, who have pledged – gasp! – to meet regularly to talk shop.

They're also pushing for measures to make Congress function better. Among them: increasing the Washington work week from three days to five; not paying members of Congress unless they manage to submit a budget on time; and introducing a version of Question Period for the President.

For No Labels, Monday's gathering was a kind of reboot. The group was created in late 2010 with support from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg as a launching pad for a centrist policy agenda.

That fizzled. Instead of trying to stake out a middle ground on particular policies, No Labels is welcoming Democrats and Republicans of all stripes with a focus on process.

"We're the only group that doesn't associate guilt by conversation," said Joe Manchin, a Democratic senator from West Virginia, referring to the worry that talking to adversaries will be viewed as disloyalty. "If you let them stay in their cocoons, they'll never change."

Mr. Manchin is co-chairing No Labels together with Republican Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah who attempted to win his party's nomination for president. The two men addressed the audience wearing matching yellow ties – no partisan red or blue for this gathering.

While the country's fiscal challenge is well known, it also faces what Mr. Huntsman described as a corrosive lack of trust in the political process. "People conclude that their system doesn't work," he said. "Our system needs an infusion of believability, desperately."

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There was no shortage of examples of dysfunction. Mr. Manchin, who arrived in the Senate in 2010, said he hadn't participated in any formal bipartisan caucus since he arrived on Capitol Hill.

Scott Rigell, a Virginia Republican in the House of Representatives, echoed that sentiment. In recent discussions, he was surprised to learn that his Democratic colleagues were also deeply concerned about the deficit. "As simple as that sounds, it's an assumption I didn't really hold," he said.

Monday's meeting followed a day of training on Sunday for the assembled activists, who learned how to apply pressure to elected officials and start organizing in their communities.

For Louis Fitzpatrick, 58, a pharmaceutical executive from Souderton, Pa., it was the first political activism he'd engaged in since his university days. The organization doesn't have to score a home run that transforms the political process, Mr. Fitzpatrick said. "We'll just keep chipping away at it."

Emanuel Pleitez, 30, a technology executive who is running for mayor of Los Angeles, said the meeting proved No Labels had overcome earlier skepticism. He ticked off the strengths on display at Monday's event: validation from members of Congress, grassroots support and a supply of funds.

"This is phenomenal," said Mr. Pleitez, pointing to the ballroom full of people next door. "It makes me very hopeful."

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