- Associated Press - Monday, March 17, 2014

MILWAUKEE (AP) - Before U.S. Rep. Reid Ribble was elected to Congress, he envisioned Democrats and Republicans gathering together to debate important issues and develop legislation. He was stunned when he arrived in Washington to find that members of the two parties often don’t come together until it’s time to mark up bills, and by then, they already feel antagonistic.

Rep. Mark Pocan said he received a lesson in partisanship soon after his election to Congress in 2012. He attended a two-week training for freshmen representatives in which participants were segregated by party nearly the entire time.

“They taught us bad behavior, not only on day one, but before day one,” said Pocan, who appeared with Ribble on Monday at Marquette University Law School.

Ribble, a Republican from the Fox Valley, and Pocan, a Madison Democrat, belong to No Labels’ Problem Solvers, a bipartisan group of lawmakers who meet weekly to get to know each other and discuss issues. They blamed the gridlock in Congress in large part on the lack of communication and personal goodwill between members and said voters can help solve the problem by choosing candidates who are willing to work with members of the opposite party.

Ribble, who described himself as a conservative Republican, started No Labels with Rep. Scott Rigell, R-Va.

“I said to him, ‘Why don’t you go find a Democrat, I don’t even care which one, just pick one. And I’ll go find one, and let’s go to dinner,’” Ribble said.

Rigell brought Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., and Ribble brought Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore. The gathering went well, and they agreed to meet again with each person bringing one more. The group is now up to 92 members, and each person who joins must bring a member of the opposite party to maintain an ideological balance.

Pocan, who describes himself as a progressive Democrat, said he was once his party’s ‘bomb-thrower’ in the Wisconsin Legislature but he has learned that compromise is the key to getting work done. He told a story about being in an elevator with a Republican he knows and lamenting that Congress had been back from break for two weeks and accomplished little, in part because of tea party members’ unwillingness to compromise.

“He goes ‘Oh, don’t worry, they’ll get better in three to four years,’” Pocan said.

Pocan and Ribble faulted redistricting for creating a polarized Congress. Redistricting is the process in which lawmakers redraw congressional districts every 10 years to account for changes in population. In many states, the districts also have been drawn to favor a member of one party or another.

Pocan said the problem is more difficult for Republicans, who often face challenges from more conservative tea party members. But he noted that his Democratic primary opponent in 2012 had tried to capitalize on the fact that he had a working relationship with Assembly Republicans, including Speaker Robin Vos.

“I was really proud of the primary voters who said, ‘We don’t want someone going in just absolutist,” Pocan said.

Pocan and Ribble noted their differences on everything from health care to term limits - Ribble is for them, Pocan is not - but said they have found areas where they can work together. One is a bill Ribble introduced to create a two-year federal budget, instead of a single-year budget.

The House Budget Committee approved it in February on a 22-10 bipartisan vote. The full House has not yet voted.

The big message, Ribble said, is that “you can be principled and reasonable all at once.”