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Huntsman and No Labels seek to break D.C. gridlock

Published July 18, 2013 11:26 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Washington • Top strategists launched the post-partisan No Labels group in 2010 to combat the polarization of politics. They added new co-chairmen, including former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, in January to renew the group's efforts.

And Thursday, the group will unveil its now 81-person-strong coalition of members of Congress.

But beyond all the hype, there's a question of just what the group has accomplished — or will be able to — as Washington remains so broken that the budget has stalled, immigration reform appears doomed and senators came to the brink of invoking the "nuclear option" of changing their age-old rules.

"Everyone is in favor of Washington getting together to solve problems," says Tony Fratto, who served as deputy press secretary to then-President George W. Bush, and is a critic of No Labels. "But the problem isn't entirely that no one wants to; the problem is we're dealing with very difficult, complex problems that require difficult, complex solutions. None of this is easy."

So far, No Labels claims credit for getting Congress to pass legislation that would withhold members' salaries until they pass a budget — a measure that other groups also stake claim to.

The No Labels website's list of accomplishments includes the names of all its congressional supporters, dubbed "problem solvers," as well as a slew of bipartisan bills they've introduced.

On Thursday, they'll highlight nine measures — like cutting government travel, eliminating automatic spending increases and tossing out duplicate agency programs — and argue for more members of Congress to step up and pass legislation that most, if not all, folks can agree on.

"Washington has been riven by gridlock for a long time and this problem won't be fixed overnight," says Huntsman, a one-time Republican presidential candidate who shares the co-chairman title with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V. "But No Labels has tapped into a growing desire among citizens and among members of Congress to forge a new path forward."

While most of the news about Congress lately is about its dysfunction, Huntsman notes that No Labels is bringing people together.

The group — which now has its own monthly radio show — hasn't been a major player in some of the more controversial issues on Capitol Hill this year, including the debate over gun control or immigration reform. Its focus, for now, is on fiscal issues.

You have to start somewhere, says Rep. Jim Matheson, a Utah Democrat who joined up earlier this year.

"There are members of Congress here who brag they won't even speak to someone from the other party and I think that's absolutely disgusting," Matheson says. "We're about working together to get something done."

The legislation to be unveiled Thursday won't "solve all the world's problems," Matheson notes, but it bodes well that House and Senate members from both sides of the aisle can sit down together.

Matheson is also a leader in the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of conservative Democrats who focus on fiscal issues but that has shriveled after recent elections.

No Labels seeks to fill a needed gap and includes Republican members.

"At a time when Congress can't seem to do anything, the No Labels Problem Solvers in just three months got together and conceived, wrote and submitted 17 bills," notes Republican strategist Mark McKinnon, a founder of the group. "We are kicking up a storm."

Of course, introducing legislation is a far cry from passing legislation. House members have proposed 2,671 measures so far this year; The Senate has 1,295 listed. Few of them will become law.

Historically, Congress has turned to a select crew of members to come up with solutions — think Gang of Eight on immigration or the Gang of 14 on filibuster reform — but No Labels appears to have built one of the largest alliances of its kind.

"We won't be able to have a chance of getting past gridlock if no one tries to do anything about it," says Costas Panagopoulos, director of the Center for Electoral Politics and Democracy at New York's Fordham University. "Efforts to try to move in that direction will eventually push us closer to it."

tburr@sltrib.com