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Post-election, some lawmakers move to the middle

NEW YORK – There’s a lot of political currency these days in being labeled a “problem-solver,” a title that has become highly sought-after following a polarizing election and protracted fight in Congress over raising taxes and curbing spending.

With sharp divisions in Washington entering President Obama’s second term, lawmakers from both parties are seeking the political middle as voters increasingly view government as bitter and paralyzed.

For Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat representing conservative West Virginia, Washington has become a place where any politician faces “guilt by conversation,” in which merely raising the need to address fundamental problems can imperil their political career. For former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, whose Republican presidential campaign fizzled during the GOP primaries, Washington’s dysfunction has seeped into the corporate boardroom and onto the factory floor, hampering the economy and preventing hiring and investing.

“We have the politics of right, left and center in America. But we’ve forgotten the most important one of all and that’s the politics of problem solving,” Huntsman said.

Manchin and Huntsman were joining about a dozen members of Congress on Monday in New York to band together under the “No Labels” alliance that aims to put governing over political orthodoxy. Organizers are kicking off a new effort to attract members of Congress and lawmakers from across the political spectrum who want compromise after a lengthy campaign season put Washington in a virtual holding pattern.

No Labels, which formed in 2010 to try to encourage collaboration across the political spectrum, is releasing the names of two dozen lawmakers joining their effort and promoting a series of reforms in Congress to attempt to break the divide. It aims to attract about 70 members of Congress who would pledge to meet regularly to discuss ways of improving the process and find solutions on policy issues.

Mark McKinnon, a No Labels co-founder and former adviser to President George W. Bush, said the organization is no longer simply seeking out moderates in their respective parties but looking for lawmakers of all political stripes. Instead of pushing long-term reforms like redistricting and campaign finance, he said No Labels is pushing for changes to the process that could put the “grease back in the engine” of governing.

Among the proposed reforms: Requiring Congress to work five days a week instead of the typical late Monday-Thursday schedule; withholding congressional pay if lawmakers fail to pass a budget; forcing an up-or-down vote on presidential appointments within 90 days of a nomination; and changes to the rules for filibuster in the Senate that allow the minority party to stall the process on bills and nominations that have fewer than 60 votes.

Manchin, who was elected to the Senate in 2010, said the group could be a catalyst for lawmakers of differing ideologies to talk, something he says rarely happens. He said anyone who tries to have an honest conversation about changing the rules runs the risk of a well-funded primary challenge or general election opponent.

Huntsman, who served as U.S. ambassador to China under Obama before running for president, said a “coalition of problem-solvers” could be the first step in brokering compromise on some of the most pressing policy items this year, such as reforms to the tax code, deficit reduction and immigration.

In many ways, the movement is an outgrowth of the frustration over the paralysis in government. Its success will measure whether targeting political gridlock is good politics at a time when congressional approval ratings remain low.

Politicians of all stripes said the main message from the 2012 election was setting aside differences and tackling longstanding problems. But hopes of a broad agreement on taxes and spending cuts to avert the so-called fiscal cliff failed to materialize, with many decisions being delayed into this year.

Others have voiced frustration with Washington, accusing members of Congress of losing sight of what remains most important.