Nation & World

Center Aisle Caucus tries to bypass Congress' partisan ways

WASHINGTON — In politically divided Washington, the idea of Republicans and Democrats trying to find ways to agree might seem as improbable as a blizzard in Tahiti. But that's the goal of a little-publicized group of House of Representatives members known as the Center Aisle Caucus.

The 60-member bipartisan group, which will rev up again next week when Congress returns from a monthlong summer recess, operates with the lofty objective of finding common purpose at a time when much of the public is fed up with congressional gridlock in Washington.

Applicants for membership aren't admitted unless they recruit companion members from the opposite party. Caucus members avoid lightning-rod issues and focus only on areas that most likely would produce agreement. Under one unwritten bylaw, members never engage in political campaigns against other members.

While cynics might say that the caucus is a little too Pollyannaish to be effective in the gritty partisan environment of Washington, others it applaud for pursuing a worthy, if elusive, objective. As the 110th Congress nears the end of a rancorous two-year session, voters clearly are displeased with their elected representatives, with less than 20 percent of the public giving Congress positive ratings in recent polls.

"It's a welcome sign," said Morris Fiorina, a political science professor at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution research center. The public, he said, is fed up with Congress "getting nothing done and fighting about small issues."

Moreover, leaders of the group think that the caucus is tapping into the mainstream of political opinion at a time when the two presidential contenders and other candidates are reaching for the center to secure victories in the November election. U.S. Senate candidate Mark Warner of Virginia, for example, is appealing to what he calls "radical centrists" to steer government toward the middle and away from extremes.

Reps. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., and Timothy Johnson, R-Ill., founded the caucus in 2005, but it's largely operated under the public's radar. Most of its members, Israel said, are "defiant centrists" from both parties, hence the name Center Aisle.

Members meet at a Chinese restaurant about two blocks from the Capitol. The first order of business, Israel said, is to put aside any areas of disagreement and begin focusing on issues that would yield consensus quickly.

"We would prefer to act where we can have agreement rather than scream at each other over contentious issues where we would never agree," Israel said.

While that policy automatically excludes immigration and many issues involving the Iraq war, there's still plenty of maneuvering room, he said. Caucus members agreed to push for legislation to expedite visas for Iraqi refugees and supported releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to increase the domestic oil supply and reduce prices.

Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., said she'd invited Josette Sheeran, the head of the United Nations' World Food Program, to address the group on the growing world food shortage.

"I now have 30 or 40 more allies that I wouldn't otherwise have on this issue," said Emerson, a caucus co-chair.

The group also works with the Faith and Politics Institute, a nonpartisan interfaith group that advises public officials. One of the institute's consultants uses exercises in which participants are asked to write their opponents' victory speeches as a way to get a better understanding of the other side.

In addition to issues, caucus leaders hope that the group's very existence can engender a more genial atmosphere in a Congress torn by political discord.

Israel thinks that the caucus could have dozens of potential recruits from the November elections.

"There's going to be a tidal wave of new members, and those new members are going to want to show their constituents that they're not part of the old inside-the-Beltway Washington culture," he said.

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