In 1994, Rick Santorum, a conservative Republican congressman, narrowly won the Pennsylvania Senate seat held by Harris Wofford, a liberal Democrat. The campaign was not pleasant. Representative Santorum publicly called Senator Wofford a liar.
Yet, seven years later, Wofford and Santorum stood together in the shadow of the Capitol, to announce they would lead a working group on faith-based and community organizations. Wofford acknowledged the incongruity, saying they were "the odd couple."
"How could you?" former Wofford staffer Steven Waldman recalls asking his boss. "He gave me a knowing smile that seemed to say, 'Someday you'll be old enough to understand that you can accomplish more in life seeking agreement than nursing grudges.'"
The former foes came together because the nonprofit organization that we head, Search for Common Ground (SFCG), invited them to lead a working group to find consensus between right and left - both religious and secular - on the role of faith-based groups in overcoming poverty. They agreed to be part of a consensus process that we - and a coalition of national leaders - hope to institutionalize through Congressional legislation.
Santorum and Wofford buried the hatchet and attracted key players from across the political and social spectrums. The idea was to make recommendations on the role social service providers with religious ties should play in publicly funded poverty programs. The 27 participants included leaders from organizations as diverse as People for the American Way and Evangelicals for Social Action; and Christian, Jewish, and Muslim organizations. Both liberal and conservative foundations funded the process.
None of these very busy people missed the meetings held once a month for six months - not even on 9/11, when they were evacuated from a building near the White House and walked a mile to reconvene elsewhere.
"It was our answer to those who would divide us," recalls former Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode, a working group member.
Still, division did exist. For example, one liberal leader arrived at a session outraged at conservative participants, because he felt their allies in the Bush White House were using "underhanded" tactics that made attempts at compromise pointless. He nearly walked out. But a key part of our process was the use of a professional facilitator who kept participants out of attack mode by guiding conversation back toward collaborative action, while still allowing anger to be expressed.
It was important to avoid recreating the debate as it was being framed in the media and Congress: a food fight over whether more funds should be given to faith-based groups and whether they violated separation of church and state.
Wofford said later that he and Santorum agreed the public debate "had gotten off track." They came to see that they could work together on the basis of shared compassion. The framing question for liberals and conservatives to cooperate became: What could they do together to help poor Americans?
At first, everyone had stereotypes. Faith-based advocates generally believed the civil libertarians cared more about constitutional rights than helping people. Civil libertarians thought that the faith-based contingent was interested mainly in proselytizing. Common ground emerged when each realized that the other was equally committed to alleviating poverty - and to staying true to core beliefs.
The atmosphere encouraged participants to relinquish rote responses and to step beyond their stereotypes. As they got to know each other, they mostly stopped demonizing the other. They rolled up their sleeves and got to work. No one was required to give up strongly held positions or to compromise principles. They were asked only to seek solutions acceptable to everyone in the room. Each participant had what amounted to veto power, so there was no need to round up votes to support positions, and participants became adept at putting themselves in one another's shoes. In the end, participants unanimously adopted 29 specific recommendations, including:
• Tax deductions for charitable contributions from Americans who do not itemize taxes.
• Prohibition of using public funds to support proselytizing.
• Transparency by service providers and government agencies.
• No discrimination against faith-based groups because of their religious beliefs.
Subsequently, Santorum joined Sens. Joseph Lieberman and Hillary Rodham Clinton to sponsor a compromise bill that included the bulk of the recommendations. President Bush hailed the bill as a "great accomplishment," and most of the recommendations either became law or were adopted as government policy.
To be sure, the group did not address every contentious issue. For example, the participants could not agree on whether faith-based service providers could refuse to hire homosexuals, or on whether government vouchers should be used to support overtly religious programs. In these cases, participants agreed, without rancor, to disagree.
Beyond the specifics, however, the process itself proved it could work even on a highly controversial issue.
"What the consensus group did was to show people on both sides that the faith-based issue didn't have to escalate to the level of the abortion issue that freezes everything around it," said program director Roger Conner.
If processes like this could be expanded to other divisive issues, it would be a transformational leap for US politics. While not every problem is ripe for a consensus-building approach, such processes could drain much poison from the political debate.
Indeed, we have launched similar consensus-building processes on domestic healthcare issues and on prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS around the world.
And a task force - led by Mark Racicot, a former governor of Montana and President Bush's reelection campaign manager, and Dan Glickman, a former Democratic congressman from Kansas and former Secretary of Agriculture for President Clinton - has been lobbying Congress to create the US Consensus Council. Modeled on successful organizations in several states, the USCC would institutionalize consensus processes and assist Congress and the president in finding agreement on selected national issues. The USCC would be a private, nonprofit body, authorized by Congress and funded by publicly and privately.
While consensus processes are no panacea, they could certainly disprove the idea that national politics can be practiced only in an adversarial, partisan way. The system doesn't have to function the way it does. People with deeply held, opposing beliefs can find common ground and work together.
There are alternatives to win-lose, take-no-prisoners politics if - and this a huge if - Americans choose to use them.
• John Marks is president and Susan Collin Marks is executive vice president of Search for Common Ground, a nonprofit organization working in societal conflict resolution in the US and abroad.