Huntsman: Americans ill served by 'dysfunctional' Congress
Politics • No Labels group aims to promote country's interests over party ideology.
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New York • Americans are being "pathetically served" by their leaders and that dysfunction will continue unless Republicans and Democrats come together, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman said Monday as he joined a revived effort to boost bipartisanship.

Republican Huntsman and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, plan to take up the challenge of getting both sides of the partisan divide to step away from their rigid ideologies. The two were named Monday as national chairmen of the No Labels group, which touts itself as the first effort to push conversation instead of specific causes or distinct policies.

"I'm simply here because I care about this country and the next generation, and I think they're being pathetically served by what's happening in Washington today," Huntsman said. "It is dysfunctional."

The 2-year-old No Labels group, founded by several seasoned insiders from the political right and left, is hoping to insert itself into the national debate at a time of a widening partisan divide.

To accomplish the steep task, 24 members of Congress have signed on as "problem solvers," pledging to sit down with one another and recruit their colleagues on a hunt for common ground.

Manchin said the first step is to end the notion that even talking to someone on the other side of the aisle is "guilt by conversation," and that what's desperately needed in Congress is real relationships.

"You know how hard it is to say no to a friend?" Manchin asked rhetorically.

Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., added that Congress needs people who can tackle problems, not exacerbate them.

"We're the counterweight to the extremes that dominate the discussion in our respective caucuses and conferences," Schrader said.

Huntsman, a year removed from his failed presidential campaign, spent Monday shuffling between TV interviews and notepad-toting reporters in the Times Square Marriott. His volunteer role is likely to mirror that effort, keeping the group in the news media and trying to attract more supporters.

"If we're going to really find solutions to the big problems — tax reform, immigration, energy, balancing the books — it's going to take both sides working together," Huntsman told The Salt Lake Tribune.

Although he hasn't ruled out another bid for the White House, Huntsman said jumping on the No Labels initiative isn't about propping up his career but rather an extension of his message from the presidential race: country before party. Huntsman resigned as Utah's governor to serve as the U.S. ambassador in China under President Barack Obama.

"You do it because it's the right thing to do," Huntsman said. "You do it because this concept of changing the ethic in Washington more toward solving problems and getting Republicans and Democrats alike in the same room to solve problems is the right thing to do."

Others have tried before — there are a slew of various groups with the claimed goal of bridging the gap between the parties — but Huntsman says this is different because No Labels won't be driving specific legislation but generating policy statements that everyone has to sign on to.

Take gun control, for example.

"When you get people of good mind, who are willing to govern for future generations as opposed to the next election, and willing to put their country ahead of party," Huntsman said, "then you're going to come out with some sort of comprehensive fix, drawing from a lot of different elements that ultimately are going to address the more immediate need on guns."

Huntsman's stated goal, though, comes at a time when Americans in general are pulling away from the middle. A Gallup poll last month showed 47 percent of voters call themselves Democrat or lean toward the party while 39 percent align with the GOP. Self-described independents are more rare.

And there are skeptics that No Labels — which struggled in its first few years to gain traction — will be able to make a difference.

"Everyone is in favor of Washington getting together to solve problems," said Tony Fratto, who served as deputy press secretary under President George W. Bush. "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."

There isn't much wiggle room in reforming Social Security, he notes, because Republicans say there's a huge problem with the program while Democrats see it as a tiny one in need of tweaking.

"Singing Kumbaya," Fratto said, "isn't going to make AARP change its views on Social Security reform."

Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., says it's worth a try and noted that he recently stayed late at an event to chat with his "archenemy," Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va. Moran ended up giving Kingston a ride home, he said.

"That's the problem with No Labels," Kingston said, "you start liking people."

Then again, Obama said Monday that he doesn't see relationships as the cause of the paralysis in Washington. He noted that he likes House Speaker John Boehner and had fun golfing with the Ohio Republican, but that didn't help the two come to a consensus in the fiscal cliff negotiations.

When members of Congress come to the White House for the annual picnic, Obama said, he's friendly to all of them and "we have a wonderful time."

"But it doesn't prevent them from going onto the floor of the House," Obama added, "and blasting me for being a big-spending socialist."

tburr@strib.com —

No Labels priorities

Tell citizens the full truth about our national challenges.

Govern for the future — not the next election.

Put country ahead of party.

Be responsible and accountable.

Work together.