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Bipartisan House Group Pushes for Grand Bargain

Updated: 6:40 p.m.

Signs of bipartisanship are slowly beginning to show on Capitol Hill, even as Congress moves into full campaign mode.

A collection of about 80 House Members, split almost evenly between the two parties, is preparing to send a letter this week calling on the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction to negotiate a grand bargain. Supporters of the effort, led by Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), include dozens of lawmakers who have been meeting all year to discuss fiscal issues.

The group’s efforts come as a New York Times/CBS News poll places Congress’ approval rating at 9 percent and just weeks before the super committee is scheduled to put forward its recommendations to reduce the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion.

“They have to go big and everything has to be on the table,” Simpson said recently of the super committee. “I don’t think you can take anything off the table and get to where we need to be.”

Simpson and Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) are the bipartisan leaders behind a letter urging the super committee to negotiate a grand bargain similar to what Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and President Barack Obama discussed this summer before settling on a smaller deal to raise the debt limit. Simpson said the House letter follows up on a Senate version released last month, in which more than 30 bipartisan Members urged the panel to go beyond its mandate and shoot for a $4 trillion deal.

“We know that many in Washington and around the country do not believe we in the Congress and those within your committee can successfully meet this challenge. We believe that we can and we must,” the letter says.

Supporters of the letter represent a broad cross section of the House, including freshmen, conservatives and liberals. Rep. Jim Himes, a New Democrat Coalition member, said the eclectic mix proves “there’s a very substantial group that’s willing to be more public for a larger deal than just statements would suggest.”

Asked whether he thought a silent majority of lawmakers was forming in support of bipartisanship, the Connecticut Democrat said: “I absolutely do. Over the last six months, I have been at countless breakfast and dinners with no press and no cameras where conservative Republicans have said I know we need to address revenues, and liberal Democrats have said I know we need to address entitlements.”

While the Senate has shown its own attempts at bipartisanship this year, namely the “gang of six” led by Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), the House has offered no complementary effort. Boehner, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) have each made public statements urging the super committee to reach a broad agreement, but rank-and-file Members have not come together behind the same message.

One senior Democratic aide described the House letter as an attempt for Members to show there is support to pass a grand bargain that includes revenues, defense cuts and entitlement reform.

“There’s a sense that there’s bipartisan grass-roots support in the Senate for going big and doing it in a bipartisan way, and there hasn’t been the same evidence of that in the House, and there’s a sense that the House is more polarized,” the aide said. “I think it’s important to show there’s a similar group of bipartisan Members over here.”

Members of the Tuesday Group, of which Simpson is a member, and leaders of the Blue Dog Coalition, of which Shuler is a leader, met just before the October recess to discuss Simpson’s letter and other areas where the two groups could work together. Like other bipartisan coalitions that have searched for ways to collaborate this year, Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.) said the super committee gave the two groups a platform to come together.

“We’re working on this letter. We’re not having press conferences and beat[ing] our chest,” Ross said in a brief interview. “We’re trying to work on bringing both sides to the middle to get the job done.”

Ross, who is retiring next year, noted that Members on both sides have grown frustrated with the political stalemates that have dominated the Capitol this year. He acknowledged that moderates have been too quiet in their efforts at bipartisanship, but he said that with the approval of Congress at an all-time low, constituents need to see more public examples of collaboration on the Hill.

“While I think Members are focused on the super committee, I think it’s all related to this idea that our constituents think we’re not solving problems confronting us,” he said. “And Members on both sides of the aisle are hearing that. And so the sense is we really need to do something.”

Other Members have been feeling the squeeze, too. An informal group of lawmakers led by freshman Reps. John Carney (D-Del.) and Jim Renacci (R-Ohio) has been meeting for breakfast all year. Some of those participants have signed on to Simpson’s letter, although the two groups are not coordinating.

It’s not just moderates looking to collaborate. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, count themselves as supporters of the Simpson-Shuler letter. Welch has made his own attempts at bipartisanship this year, forming a coalition of Members from hurricane-ravaged states in September. In June, he struck an unlikely partnership with conservative Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) to push for a withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan.

“Below the surface and all the combat, I think there’s a growing awareness among Members on both sides of the aisle that this standoff we’re having, where every vote is party line and we don’t get anything done, is really creating an immense amount of frustration among our constituents,” Welch said.

And as leaders look to bring a potential set of recommendations from the super committee to the floor, as well as another continuing resolution to keep the government funded, a cross-section of Members is looking to show them that the votes will be there.

“There is a de facto middle that governs this place now and then on some of the big stuff,” Welch said. “Will it be there for the super committee recommendations? Will it be there for other things as well? Only time will tell.”

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