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Bipartisan group’s success on COVID-19 relief could just be the beginning

Narrow majorities could boost role of Problem Solvers Caucus

Reps. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., left, and Tom Reed, R-N.Y., before a Dec. 14 news conference with a bipartisan group of lawmakers to unveil a COVID-19 relief bill proposal.
Reps. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., left, and Tom Reed, R-N.Y., before a Dec. 14 news conference with a bipartisan group of lawmakers to unveil a COVID-19 relief bill proposal. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Everybody’s talking about bipartisanship in the Senate, but the cross-party cooperation that led to Congress on Monday passing nearly $900 billion in coronavirus relief started in the House. Any bipartisan deals formed next session could start there too, members of the House Problem Solvers Caucus say.

“This in many ways could be the model for how we govern in the next Congress,” New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer, the Democratic co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus, said in an interview. “Democrats, Republicans didn’t come together just for this moment, but have been working together for years, which obviously helps you build more trust.”

President-elect Joe Biden on Tuesday celebrated passage of the pandemic aid package — designed to provide a few months of relief before his administration attempts to enact larger aid for the struggling economy — as the “first glimpse of bipartisanship” that he hopes to rekindle. Although he didn’t specifically name it, the Problem Solvers Caucus was key to lighting that flame. 

A group of 50 members equally divided between the two parties, the caucus was the first bipartisan gang of rank-and-file members to attempt to compromise on a massive aid package that divided the House and Senate leadership for months. 

Over the summer, half a dozen members who became known as the “tiger team” — a military-turned-business phrase for a cross-functional group brought together to solve a critical issue — started hammering out details of a bipartisan aid package with input from the broader caucus. 

The group kept the White House and Democratic leaders, who were holding on-again, off-again negotiations, in the loop as they drafted a $1.5 trillion framework they unveiled Sept. 15. 

The Trump administration adopted much of that framework in separate $1.62 trillion and $1.88 trillion offers Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin made to Speaker Nancy Pelosi

As the two sides talked, caucus members remained engaged, trading ideas and paper without choosing a corner. 

“We became the Switzerland,” New York Rep. Tom Reed, the group’s Republican co-chair, said. 

Election dynamics

The Problem Solvers proposal and the broader leadership negotiations got snagged in election year politics, but the framework ultimately proved useful.

In November, after the GOP lost the White House while Democrats saw their House majority shrink, the Problem Solvers decided to produce another plan to try to bring the leaders of both parties together. A bipartisan group of senators was looking to do the same, so they joined forces. 

The goal for the House group remained the same: to provide enough aid to help struggling Americans through March. But by November the amount of money needed to get there was lower than their $1.5 trillion “March to Common Ground” framework, a name Reed said was a nod to the March goal.

The bicameral group settled on $908 billion. A new framework they unveiled Dec. 1 took some of what the Problem Solvers had put together in September. Democratic leaders embraced the proposal, saying it should serve as the foundation for negotiations with their GOP counterparts.

On Dec. 14, the bicameral group released legislative text but broke up their $908 billion framework into a $748 billion portion they unanimously agreed on and a more controversial component to provide liability protections and $160 billion in aid to state and local governments. 

The top four congressional leaders sat down the next day for their first in-person meeting in months and began negotiating, using the $748 billion bill as a base. It took them nearly a week to clinch a deal and produce the final package Congress passed Monday. Issues in the $160 billion piece were left for the next Congress.

“Frankly everything in our framework is reflected in the ultimate bill … in terms of priorities,” Gottheimer said. 

Congressional leaders have acknowledged that to limited degrees. 

“We don’t get a lot of rewards on either side of the aisle by doing what we did, but we only did so in the absence of something we thought was so terribly needed,” Minnesota Democratic Rep. Dean Phillips said. “Given similar circumstances in the future, we would activate again — more quickly now that we have a process in place.”

‘Linchpin of the governing block’

The Problem Solvers Caucus, formed in 2017, is expected to grow next Congress. Gottheimer and Reed have been recruiting new members and their work on the coronavirus relief deal has attracted interest. But they have to keep the membership equally divided between the parties — “the Noah’s Ark rule,” as Gottheimer calls it.

The caucus is invite-only. The co-chairs are looking for members who will attend the weekly caucus meetings and engage in legislative working groups. Reed expects the group to have between 52 and 58 members come January. 

“We’re going to be the linchpin of the governing block in the House,” he said.

Over the past few years the group has developed bipartisan frameworks on a variety of legislative issues like infrastructure and health care that were not enacted, although some smaller elements have passed.

Two years ago, the Problem Solvers convinced Pelosi, who needed the Democratic members’ support to secure the gavel, to agree to changes to House rules designed to foster cross-party cooperation. One called the “consensus calendar” allowed rank-and-file members to bring bills with broad bipartisan support to the floor when leadership declined to schedule them. 

The group is pushing for a similar rule for the 117th Congress that would force committees to act on bipartisan bills. 

Despite some wins, most of the Problem Solvers Caucus’ work has been underappreciated in the House, which is known for one-party rule. 

Pelosi, for example, dismissed their $1.5 billion coronavirus aid framework before later embracing the $908 billion plan they developed with the senators. 

‘Not a sin to cut deals’

Caucus members are hoping Pelosi will show more interest in their bipartisan efforts next Congress where she will have a razor-thin majority due to Democrats’ election losses and incumbents heading to Biden’s administration. 

“It’d sure be nice, given the fact she’s gonna need some Republican votes now and then because some of the far left obviously will just continue to vote no,” Rep. Kurt Schrader, an Oregon Democrat, said. 

Rep. John Katko said if Pelosi continues a partisan approach, she’s not going to be successful legislatively. 

“I think American people are screaming for [bipartisanship] right now. And it’s time,” the New York Republican said. “It’s not a sin to cut deals..”

Biden’s interest should help, the members of the caucus say. 

“If the vice president, president-elect is the man I think he is, he’ll want to figure out, through our group, what are the touch points that can get Republican support,” Schrader said. “He is a guy who likes to get results and work across the aisle.”

Biden, a former senator and vice president known for dealmaking, made bipartisanship a tenet of his campaign. But the task of bringing Democrats and Republicans together is made more urgent with the House and Senate both facing tight margins next year. 

House Democrats will start the 117th Congress Jan. 3 with a four-seat majority, which will dwindle, at least temporarily, once three House Democrats Biden has tapped for his administration move into those roles. Control of the Senate won’t be decided until runoffs for Georgia’s two Senate seats on Jan. 5, but whichever party prevails won’t have much wiggle room either.

“The narrow majority is the key to everything,” Rep. Tom Suozzi said. “It’s gonna require a lot of instances [where] the Democrats have to do a better job of holding our coalition together … When that’s just not doable, we’re going to need to pull together Republicans who want to join and get things done.” 

The New York Democrat said members of the group developed a “real sense of trust” in each other over the past four years that can “play a big role” in building consensus. 

Michigan GOP Rep. Fred Upton agreed, arguing that if Biden wants to make laws, he’ll need to leverage bipartisan congressional coalitions like the Problem Solvers. The group, realizing the need for bicameral cooperation as well, has “set a lot of groundwork with a number of senators, both Republican and Democrat,” he said. 

While there’s an imperative to work across the aisle with narrow House and Senate majorities, there are other benefits as well. 

“Bipartisan legislation tends to be more durable, because at the next political pendulum swing it isn’t dismantled by the other party,” Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., said.

Playing hardball

If the narrow majorities do not force party leaders to work together, members of the caucus are prepared to play hardball to break the gridlock. 

“We’ve gotten to know the rules a lot better, so we’re going to know how to play the process game, the procedural game a lot better,” Reed said.

Even a small group of Problem Solvers could band together to defeat a rule or to adopt a previous question, the minority motion to amend a rule, to alter the terms of debate, he said. 

“You could demand that amendments be made in order so that we can actually have old fashioned debates … bringing this stuff out into the sunshine,” Reed said. 

But the Problem Solvers aren’t the only group looking to use their leverage. They’ll have to compete against more partisan Democratic groups like the Congressional Progressive Caucus and conservative factions like the House Freedom Caucus. 

“Every caucus recognizes their potential to be disruptors and to bend the potential towards their own,” Phillips said.  

For the Problem Solvers, he said the goal is less about challenging leadership than it is about challenging a system that rewards partisanship.

“The whole model is to put us in the cauldron together … a little bit of baptism by fire,” Phillips said. “Leadership certainly doesn’t inspire that, but if anything they try to limit that.”

The group can’t transform Congress back into a functioning bipartisan institution overnight, so Phillips has set a more realistic mantra heading into the next session: “It’s not fixable, it’s not solvable, but it definitely provides opportunity to improve.”

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