Two lawmakers who crossed the political aisle to become congressional friends and basketball buddies began a drive on Wednesday for greater civility in the sharply divided U.S. House of Representatives.

With former House leaders on hand to recall the old days when Democrats and Republicans worked, drank and played golf together, they announced creation of a bipartisan Center Aisle Caucus.

“Right now, we’re the only two members,” Rep. Steve Israel, a New York Democrat, said at a news conference.

“We’re optimistic,” added Rep. Tim Johnson, an Illinois Republican. “People can agree to disagree.”

The House has grown increasingly partisan in recent years, with both parties engaged in political attacks on matters from ethics to tax cuts to federal spending.

Former Democratic House Speaker Thomas Foley and former House Republican leader Bob Michel, who served together a decade ago and still call each other friends, endorsed the two lawmakers’ effort, which the 433 other House members will be formally invited next month to join.

Israel and Johnson, third-term lawmakers who forged their friendship in Congress and on a basketball court, said greater harmony would lead to a more productive House.

“We want to serve as personal examples of how people of differing philosophies can get along and engage in civil discourse,” Johnson said.

“We understand that our differences do matter,” Israel said. “We believe, however, you can stand up on principle without making the floor of the House sound like an elementary school auditorium out of control.”

There have been such efforts before, but they often went up in smoke. An annual bipartisanship retreat was begun a few years ago. It soon ended because of lack of interest and complaints that all it produced were souvenir T-shirts.

© Reuters 2005.