Odd Coupling Comes to the House

Reps. Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland) and Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) cross the aisle in a new and unique way.

Posted: 08/05/2014 04:55 PM EDT

Once upon a time, ideological differences between congressional lawmakers on opposite sides of the aisle could be smoothed over and on occasion even solved over a card game, a nice cigar and a really good single malt scotch. That was before the term "do-nothing Congress" entered the political lexicon or a lawmaker would even consider shouting "You lie!" at a U.S. president from the hallowed House floor.

Last week, Congress began a five-week recess without making any progress on key issues like immigration and the border crisis, unemployment insurance or a minimum wage hike. The animosity between House Republicans and Democrats was at an unprecedented high.

Congressmen Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland) and Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) want things to be different when they return. Like Sen. Cory Booker and Sen. Tim Scott and Booker and Sen. Rand Paul, these two lawmakers believe that, if they try, Republicans and Democrats actually can get along.

The districts they represent couldn't be more different. Baltimore is urban and as gritty as it gets, especially when compared to the rural and deeply conservative area of Utah that Chaffetz represents. But that doesn't mean that they can't try to get along and the two lawmakers are working on ways to seek some common ground by starting with sharing what each is up against back at home.

Their odd coupling began when the Utah Republican suggested that they spend some time together in their respective districts. The first stop was a visit in June to Cummings' heavily Democratic district in Maryland.

"[Chaffetz] had an opportunity to meet with some of my seniors and to meet with some young people who were trying to get their lives back together after having gone through some tough times and trying to get back with their families," Cummings said in an interview on MSNBC's Morning Joe. "And so he had the chance to meet with a lot of the people that I represent. And I think he got an idea of what I’m fighting for when I come to the Congress and the people that are looking up to me to solve some of their problems."

It didn't stop Chaffetz from voting to sue President Obama, but it was an eye-opening experience for him.

"I actually want to get some stuff done. And I believe in that adage, seek first to understand and then to be understood. And so if you go and you break bread with somebody, actually look them in the eye and shake their hand and you see, feel, touch, hear, listen to the people, then, gosh, you figure out what you’ve got in common," he said.

The community and senior centers and AIDS clinic they visited were a far cry from Cummings's bird's-eye view this past weekend of a Utah lake, coal mines and forests from a six-seater twin-propeller plane that the Salt Lake City Tribune described as the classroom Chaffetz used to give a crash course on some of the environmental and public and private land issues that influence his constituents' politics. They also took a night cruise of the Colorado River.

"It made me a lot more sensitive to what they’re dealing with. And I’m pretty sure, as I watched him in my district, talking to people there, that I believe it sensitized him to the things I’m dealing with. And hopefully that will lead to compromise and help us to work out some problems," Cummings said.

Chaffetz is on the short list to become the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, on which Cummings is the ranking Democrat. He would replace California Rep. Darrell Issa, with whom Cummings has had a very combative relationship that has sometimes played out in public.

Though they will be on opposite sides of some issues, Cummings and Chaffetz hope they'll also achieve something.

"And so if we can get away from, you know, throwing the bombs and really concentrate on why we’re there, we can get things done for the American people. And I’m determined to do that, and I think it’s very important," Cummings said, adding that he believes Chaffetz feels the same way.

Follow Joyce Jones on Twitter: @BETpolitichick.

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(Photo: Courtesy of Rep. Elijah Cummings)

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