CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Outside a state-of-the-art grain elevator, Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley talks of how Republicans and Democrats in Congress need to overcome differences that scuttled farm legislation last summer. A day later, he tells veterans at a rec center in his blue-collar, northern Iowa district that both parties should work together to help them.
"The issues surrounding our veterans should be issues that bring us together, not issues that drive us apart," Braley says in a bipartisan pitch that lacks direct criticism of Republicans over the 16-day partial government shutdown.
In this district dotted with farming towns, as well as in districts around the country, the political environment is toxic for lawmakers running for re-election or seeking higher office. Polls show voters of all political stripes are down on Washington, especially after the shutdown. While people blame Republicans more, Democrats are hardly immune to criticism and easily could be fired next year. Besides, a second-term president's party typically suffers losses in midterm elections.
Braley and many other Democrats are treading carefully. They are avoiding the partisan slashing that marked the shutdown crisis, delicately presenting their party as the better bet to break the gridlock, and seeking to take advantage of a possible political opening.
A CBS News poll taken immediately after the shutdown showed more Americans see more Democrats as pursuing the right level of compromise than Republicans, 35 percent to 24 percent.
Still, Democrats are mindful of the risks of overplaying their hand. Gloating over the GOP's public squabbles probably wouldn't go over well with a public angry and hungering for Washington to work together. Assailing Republicans as ideological obstructionists also could give voters reason to view all politicians as the same. And acting overconfident could invite criticism that Democrats are out of touch with a public made bitter not just by the shutdown, but by weeks of problems with a health care law enacted solely by their party.
Braley has extra incentive to play nice. He is running for the Senate next year.
He also may have a case to make about bipartisanship. During the shutdown, he was among a handful of Democratic House members to vote with Republicans in favor of the 35 bills that would have at least partially reopened government. But he also opposed four of five resolutions that would have avoided the interruption in government services in the first place, leaving him open to Republican criticism.
A National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman called Braley's position a "convenient display of bipartisanship."
Braley also took heat during the shutdown for a comment he made on a radio show about the House gym's closure. "There's no towel service. We're doing our own laundry down there," he said, providing comedic fodder for TV hosts Jimmy Kimmel and Jon Stewart.
Lost in the laughter, Braley says, was the point he was trying to make about lawmakers' checking politics at the gym door.
"It's a place where members come together," he later explained. "That's something we need more of, not less of."
That was precisely his message on a quick visit home this month.
In Cedar Falls, Braley told farmers he was trying to rally rural Democrats and Republicans to reach out to urban Democrats facing pressure to oppose the farm bill's cuts in food-stamp spending. He said he's reminding all lawmakers that without a farm bill, food prices could spike and prompt voters to fault lawmakers next fall.
His message: "Let's try to work together to address all of these issues, realizing there's going to have to be give-and-take."
Jon Mixdorf, an independent voter from Cedar Falls, was among the skeptics in the crowd. He said the congressman has to do more to make the case to angry Iowans that he's above the partisan fray.
"I don't think people can see it, at least not yet," Mixdorf said. "He's just one man and there's so much noise out there."
In Cedar Rapids, veteran Randy Dunn pressed Braley to prove his commitment to legislation that would ensure that veterans get all their benefits if another shutdown occurs by working to get it passed before Veterans' Day, Nov. 11.
"I just want you to stand up and do the right thing, because it is the right thing," Dunn said.
Today, only health care benefits — they constitute 85 percent of veterans benefits — are budgeted a year in advance. The bill would put all other benefits, such as housing and vocational training, under the same protection. It has bipartisan support in both the House and Senate. The White House has been ambivalent.
Braley said he was optimistic it could pass. "This is one of those issues that can bring us together and get us focused on what the right thing is to do," he said, "not what the politically expedient thing is to do."
For all the talk of finding common ground, some constituents remained skeptical — underscoring the challenge for Braley and other politicians.
"I'm not so sure he's any different than the rest," said Larry Van Lincker, a retired veteran from Cedar Rapids. "I think they ought to throw them all out."