WASHINGTON — The bipartisan group No Labels casts itself as a way forward to help fix partisan rancor on Capitol Hill and has a membership list that can often read like a "who's who" of politically vulnerable representatives who want to be thought of as reach-across-the-aisle types.
But with record-low approval ratings for Congress and a growing anti-Washington electorate, far right and left members are eagerly lending their names to the No Labels cause and checking the "bipartisan" box on their political resumes.
Conservatives like Reps. Kerry Bentivolio, Mick Mulvaney, and Scott DesJarlais are now members of the group, as is North Carolina Republican Rep. Mark Meadows, who recently spearheaded a letter to GOP leadership saying the House should attach defunding of Obamacare to a must-pass spending bill. Democrats like Rep. Keith Ellison, and Jim Moran — who usually lend their name to more progressive causes — are also members.
"We're thrilled to have very strong conservatives as well as very progressive liberals. Our intent all along has been to represent the entire ideological spectrum," said No Labels co-founder Mark McKinnon, a former aide to President George W. Bush. "Washington is polarized and so is the country. We're not going to get a lot of traction unless we get the entire spectrum on board. The broader the representation the more likely it is we'll break the gridlock."
In interviews with a dozen Republican and Democratic aides and strategists (none of whom wanted to be named), a distaste for the organization that began in December of 2010 was palpable and viewed widely on the Hill as a way for members to cloak themselves in bipartisanship without having to vote that way.
But supporters and members of the group say that political moderation, winning elections, or even getting really big bipartisan pieces of legislation done in Congress, was never really the point.
Vermont Rep. Peter Welch, a No Labels co-chair and a liberal who regularly teams up with Republicans, said that if the outcome is a more productive and civil discourse between members of Congress, it doesn't really matter what people's motivation is in joining.
"Some members will be there because they are bridge-builders, and some members will be there because it's a somewhat painless way that will allow them to appear as bridge-builders," he said. "But on the practical level you start establishing relationships."
He pointed to his work with Mulvaney, the South Carolina conservative, as just one example. The two disagree on practically everything, but have worked together on trying to cut some defense spending.
"The whole point of No Labels for me is to spend as much or more time on where you have common agreement, than where you disagree," he said. "All of us in D.C. have various motivations for what we do. All of us are aware about how any action we take is going to affect our political prospects… The bottom line is that if you've got a nucleus of people who say their effort is to reach across party lines, that's a good thing. There's comfort in numbers in politics."
The group describes itself as an organization working to bring together people of the "left, right and everything in between as long as they are willing to collaborate with one another to seek a shared success for America." Eighty-two members of Congress have become No Labels "problem solvers," and have agreed to meet regularly to "build trust across the aisle."
They've released a dozen principles for getting Congress to work again, (in fact the plan is called, "Make Congress Work!"), including ideas like no negative campaigns against incumbent members and requiring members to sit with a member of the opposite party during joint sessions.
"It's imminently lampoonable: What does it mean for members to sit together at the State of the Union, really?" said Connecticut Democrat Jim Himes, who hails from a moderate district. "You can take a lot of shots at it, but if all we do is build some friendships that's actually a step in the right direction."
"You're playing small ball with legislation, fair point. The real value is that other than the member's gym, there is no other place where I'm going to get to know Republicans… Is the world going to change tomorrow? Absolutely not. But maybe by re-establishing some personal relationships we're setting the stage where there's more of an opportunity for compromise," Himes added.
But political strategists say the group does little more than give members some momentary good press at a time when Congress is seeing rock-bottom approval ratings. Virtually all of the top 2014 Democratic and Republican targets can be found on the No Labels "Problem Solvers" list.
"No Labels just protects the status quo in Washington by giving a good label and a good headline to vulnerable incumbents in their local newspaper," one Democratic strategist said. "It should be called 'Nice Labels' 'cause they just make incumbents look good without getting them to do anything."
A Republican strategist agreed that No Labels gave cover to vulnerable members, but saw the silver lining in it.
"In this anti-Washington environment members should do anything they can to be able to say in a TV ad that they aren't part of the problem in Washington and this gives them just the cover they need to do that effectively," the strategist said. "The No Labels ads just write themselves."
McKinnon said that the sheer numbers of the No Labels coalition — and that it's numbers have rapidly increased in it's short existence — are proof that that the organization has steam. As members have met, he said, they've managed to find areas of agreement, no matter how small, and are developing legislation around it.
"They are doing real work. It's not just a coffee club. They've written 17 pieces of legislation, filed it, and are getting co-sponsors. And that's a whole lot more than the rest of the Congress is doing. We don't have an ideological filter. All we ask them to do at the door is to come and get engaged in meaningful dialogue," he said.