Midway through a town hall meeting last week that embraced all manner of topics -- Mideast turmoil, immigration reform, corporate taxation -- an audience member at the San Ramon Community Center hit on a topic with which Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Pleasanton, is only too familiar.

"Recent polls show that a lot of people are unhappy with Congress," the man said.

"I wish you wouldn't remind me of that," Swalwell said.

The response evoked laughter from the crowd of about 200 -- a light moment amid heavy matters -- but the partisanship that has gridlocked the Capitol is not a laughing matter to the first-term congressman.

Even before he took office, while attending a one-week congressional orientation at Harvard University, Swalwell reached across the aisle to get newly elected Republicans and Democrats to talk to each other. At first, it was a group of four -- two representatives from each party -- and they reached out to others, who reached out again.

"We now have 38 members," he said. "We announced ourselves as the United Solutions Caucus, and we meet every week."

He concedes that this is a small ripple in a legislative pool of 435 members, but it's a start. The big impediment to making further headway, he said, is well-funded outside forces doing their best to polarize the two parties.


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One story Swalwell shared was of his effort to win support for a bill -- the Securing Energy Critical Elements and American Jobs Act of 2014 -- that would have encouraged American companies to mine in the U.S. for the rare earth elements used to power cellphones, laptops and renewable energy technologies.

"China controls about 90 percent of the rare earth elements, and it has been choking off exports and driving up costs," he said. "I worked for a year with the Republican chair of the science committee to get a vote on my bill."

By removing loan guarantees from the bill, Swalwell cleared that hurdle. Then he got the support of Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican majority leader. About two weeks ago, with that bipartisan backing, the bill was about to go to the floor when two monied conservative political advocacy groups -- the Heritage Foundation and the Club for Growth -- announced they would "score" negatively any member of Congress who voted for the bill. It failed by nine votes.

"When I asked my Republican colleagues if they'd support the bill," he said, "the common response I got was, 'I like your bill, but I'm afraid of how I'll be scored.'"

A bad score translates to weakened support, diminished funding and a push for more conservative alternatives. That's how many tea party candidates emerged.

Swalwell is a straight-talker who's seldom at a loss. He says raising the cap on withholding can save Social Security, that waste and fraud are Medicare's big problems, and that the National Security Agency's assault on privacy must be reined in. But he doesn't know how to fix Congress.

"Until we address outside groups and their unlimited ability to spend under the Citizens United (Supreme Court) decision, you're going to see Congress pulled farther and farther apart," he said. "When people prioritize their own kitchen-table issues, they don't know that the root cause why we can't take care of those is because of what outside spending is doing to the system."

All that they know, like the man said, is they're unhappy with Congress.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.