House Judiciary panel seeks bipartisan touch

Lawmakers on a committee known for its intense partisanship are attempting a new approach.

Republican and Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee will break bread at a Wednesday meeting aimed at fostering bipartisanship. The forum will be headlined by Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. 

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Such a meeting has been in the planning stages for quite some time, well before the Jan. 8 shooting in Tucson, Ariz., that killed six people and injured 13, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said he has envisioned such a bipartisan retreat for the past four years. 

In an interview with The Hill, Smith revealed that his plans to hold such an event were put on hold in late 2006 when Democrats won control of the House, denying him an opportunity to grab the gavel.

Since Republicans regained control of the majority, Smith says that he immediately started putting together a program to focus on bipartisanship.

With rare exception, partisanship has reigned in the House Judiciary Committee, a panel that impeached then-President Clinton in 1998 along party lines. A decade later, a Democratic-led committee investigated alleged war crimes by former President George W. Bush. 

Smith late last year read an article in The New Yorker on Breyer’s work in the mid-1970s, when he served as counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee under Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

The piece detailed the success that Kennedy achieved on major legislation because of bipartisanship, including deregulation of the airline industry.

Smith subsequently invited Breyer, who was nominated to the high court by Clinton, to speak to his committee. 

“[Breyer] said yes,” Smith said. “He is going to be our leadoff speaker. Obviously, we are asking him to talk about bipartisanship, not legal philosophy. But it shows some bipartisanship that we are going to have a Supreme Court justice that some people would consider to be on the liberal side.”

Committee members will also hear from negotiation consultant Wendy Swire, who will address principles outlined in the 1981 best-selling book authored by Roger Fisher and William Ury, titled Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In.

Members of the administration representing the Justice Department, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the FBI and other agencies will also speak at the event.

Smith hopes that committee members in the 112th Congress can “keep posturing to a minimum and enacting legislation to a maximum.”

“I like Democrats on the committee personally, but I think there are ways for us to find common ground despite the strong feelings on a lot of issues,” Smith said.

Democratic ranking member John Conyers Jr. (Mich.) is optimistic about the meeting, which will be held in the Capitol Visitor Center and is closed to the press.

“This bipartisan retreat is a good kickoff to the new Congress. I look forward to working with Lamar Smith over the next Congress as our committee continues to consider many of the nation’s most central issues. I congratulate Chairman Smith on providing the members with a forum for members on both sides to get to know each other in a less formal setting,” Conyers said in a statement sent to The Hill.

Still, Smith left the door open to considering bills that will spark partisan debates.

Asked if he is ruling out taking up a birthright citizenship bill offered by Judiciary Committee member Steve King (R-Iowa), Smith replied, “I’m not saying we aren’t going to take up controversial bills.”

Smith said bipartisanship had nothing to do with the recent decision to pass over King for the chairmanship of a Judiciary subcommittee on immigration. Over the past several years, King’s statements on immigration issues have rankled many Democrats, as well as some Republicans.

“No, that was not a factor,” Smith said.

Smith cited patent reform and crime legislation as areas where Republicans and Democrats on the committee could work together.