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Washington rancor angers bipartisan-minded Pennsylvania town

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 25, 2010; A04

NEWTOWN, PA. -- The citizens of this well-to-do hamlet outside Philadelphia know a thing or two about bipartisan affability.

Over the past 32 years, they've sent Republicans and Democrats to represent them in the people's house, swinging back and forth, 16 years per party. And they've pretty much liked all of them.

So the disgust over Washington's dysfunction is even sharper here. The politics they see playing out are "a high school game" of "tit for tat," a "schoolyard game," a "two-headed snake," and the federal city is a place where "you can't change anything," according to descriptions that emerged this week in interviews with more than a dozen voters around Bucks County.

People here have a long to-do list for the government to turn the country around during this midterm election year. For many, the first step is toning down the political brinksmanship. Bipartisanship, to these voters, is not a means to a legislative end, but rather the end itself: Only when the ongoing campaigning finally winds down can true compromise be reached on big issues such as health-care reform and freeing up the credit crunch on small businesses.

Andrea Schonewolf, who helps run her sister's home decor store on tony State Street in downtown Newtown, has seen sales drop about 30 percent recently. But asked to name her top priority, she mentions not the economy but restoring civility on Capitol Hill. "It's to work together better. I feel like they're always fighting with each other," said Schonewolf, 29, an Obama supporter.

Charlie Lewis, a retired textile engineer who helps run his wife's used-book store up the street, agreed. "I think they're both going to have to change their posture," said Lewis, 75, a lifelong Republican who voted for Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in 2008.

How voters like Schonewolf and Lewis view Thursday's bipartisan congressional health-care summit may help determine the way ahead on reform and ultimately sway November's elections.

Voters in Pennsylvania's 8th Congressional District, which includes all of Bucks County as it runs from the old steel mills just north of the Philadelphia line to the farms along the Delaware River, have suffered far less from the Great Recession than people in many places. They are not angry at Washington, just wary of the political motives behind almost every action. Median income tops $65,000, and the unemployment rate is 7.2 percent, up from 5.7 percent a year ago but well below state and national averages.

Residents do not love their health-care plans, but they are happy to have them, making them hesitant to endorse President Obama's party-line proposal for reform. Belt-tightening is a part of life; the fine men's clothier on State Street had $9,000 in sales the week before Christmas -- but that was down from $36,000 in 2007.

They pay attention to politics -- every voter interviewed mentioned Republican Scott Brown's upset Senate victory last month in Massachusetts -- but in rather old-fashioned ways. They're reading about the "tea party" movement in Time magazine, and they're volunteering for campaigns, via not Twitter but word of mouth.

Mark Ligos, 42, an Internet ad salesman for AT&T who lives in Newtown, is a self-described "big Democrat" who handed out more than 400 fliers while walking the precincts for Democratic Rep. Patrick J. Murphy's upstart 2006 campaign.

But Ligos, who has three daughters younger than 11, said that the "system" in Washington produces an "almost immediate" change in lawmakers, even those who "go in with the greatest intention." His wife's stewardship of promotional products magazines has helped buffer the family from his 15 percent drop in sales commissions. He said he cannot point to significant changes since Obama took office: "You have this Wall Street bailout and stimulus package. You can't say that any of it's working. People are losing their jobs left and right."

These voters are part of what political strategists consider the disaffected middle, a group that increasingly views Washington with a certain level of disdain. The 8th District is one of five suburban battlegrounds ringing Philadelphia, with dozens more, from suburban Denver to suburban Columbus, Ohio, representing a critical front in November.

Murphy, the 36-year-old incumbent and the first Iraq war veteran elected to Congress, has weathered the current storm better than many Democrats. Most voters still consider him a newcomer. But he faces a potentially tough reelection battle, possibly against the Republican he ousted in 2006, Mike Fitzpatrick.

Over the past 13 months, both parties have largely ignored the pleas for practical bipartisanship from these swing voters. Republicans have marched in almost lock step against Obama's key initiatives. And Democrats continue to flirt with passing a nearly $1 trillion health-care reform plan without any Republican support through a rarely used parliamentary maneuver allowing a simple-majority Senate vote.

Even before Thursday's summit, both sides were assigning blame for a potential prolonged stalemate. "This would be the ultimate trick to get votes," Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), the No. 3 GOP leader, said of the parliamentary tactic to avoid a filibuster. "They'll just be guaranteeing themselves a political kamikaze mission come November."

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), a top Democratic strategist, said of stalled issues such as student-loan reform: "If they can't get Republican cooperation, they need to have a showdown in the Senate. Anyone opposing that is standing on the side of big banks over students."

Leonard Wilson disagrees.

The owner of Fine Art Jewelry in Bristol, Wilson, 58, is a lifelong Republican who voted for Obama and Bill Clinton while backing GOP congressional candidates. To him, a showdown is the last thing Congress needs. Calling himself an "idealist," Wilson said that "one-upmanship" has made legislative success impossible. "It gets in the way of progress. It precludes open thinking," he said, his magnifying glasses resting on his forehead in his one-man storefront in this working-class borough, which was hit harder by the recession than Newtown.

Across the street, Mycle Gorman, owner of Design Works, epitomizes suburban Philadelphia swing voters. He's a lifelong Democrat who thought that Ronald Reagan did a "great job" as president in the 1980s and that things were "never better" than under Clinton in the 1990s.

Still, his firm's revenue is down 50 percent over the past year, almost entirely because of the credit crunch that has halted housing developments and, therefore, the need for his interior design work. "The clients we deal with, they can't get financing. We're fine, because we cut our staff in half," he said, explaining his layoffs.

Gorman, who blames both parties for a "tit-for-tat thing" that has led to gridlock, holds out hope that Obama can break the stalemate in Washington.

"I think if anyone's going to do it, he's the one," Gorman said. "Will he? I don't know."

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