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A congressional meeting aimed at fixing Congress

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NEW YORK >> About a dozen members of Congress gathered in a Midtown Manhattan hotel ballroom Monday, an intentional remove from the marbled corridors of the U.S. Capitol, to chew over some uncomfortable questions: Why are we so ineffective? Why can’t we manage to be the least bit civil to each other? And why does America hate us?

"Did you hear about the poll?" asked Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa. "Congress is now rated slightly above or below cockroaches and colonoscopies." (Actually, it was below.)

This being a fairly self-aware group, there were plenty of explanations.

"We are incentivized to do crazy things," said Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., who pointed out how angry diatribes delivered on the House floor made celebrities out of lawmakers.

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., bemoaned how each party ignores the truth when it does not suit its purpose. "Congress is a fact-free zone," he declared.

These members of Congress, who were brought together by the group No Labels, which calls itself a bipartisan citizens’ movement, have plenty of serious ideas about how to address these problems. For example, they would require Congress to work a five-day week instead of their customary three or four. The group also called for not paying Congress if it cannot pass a budget and for banning the signing of any pledges.

But whether or not the 24 representatives and senators recruited so far can persuade more colleagues to join their cause is another problem altogether. And even if they do that, convincing a skeptical public that they are more than just the latest do-gooders calling for political Kumbaya is a tough sell.

They are already facing difficult questions about whether they are just another Washington policy group that will hold conferences and churn out position papers but achieve little.

Asked at a news conference what their first step would be once they left the hotel Monday afternoon, Rep. Janice Hahn, D-Calif., had an answer that might have struck some as less than inspiring: more meetings.

"I hope when we leave here we can, first and foremost, continue meeting together, continue talking about the potential big ideas that we might tackle," she said. "And then I hope we recruit more members."

Could they name a bill or an idea that they all agreed on? "We haven’t had that discussion," Welch said.

Would they disclose No Labels’ donors? After an official from the organization told a reporter that she would have to follow up on that, Jon M. Huntsman Jr., the former governor of Utah and Republican presidential candidate and now a national co-leader of No Labels, stepped in to say that he would have no problem with full disclosure.

"Transparency is an important overriding philosophy for us," he said.

Many members of No Labels are new to Congress, like Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who was elected in November.

"Will this organization work?" King asked. "We don’t know. This is unchartered territory."

Many members also have had the same reaction as their constituents to the workings of Congress: They were appalled. Everything from how bills seemed to pass only under the duress of a deadline to the lack of social interaction across party lines was unusual, they said.

Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., who has been in the Senate for two years and is the other national leader of No Labels, with Huntsman, acknowledged: "We have no relationships. You know this is the first time some of us have met each other?"

Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., summed up the promise the group’s philosophy offers with a story about how he once shared a ride with Rep. James P. Moran, D-Va. After they got to talking, he said, he actually grew fond of his political adversary.

"That’s the problem with ‘No Labels,"’ he said in a videotaped message. "You start liking people."

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