April 3, 2017

Strange But True–a New Bipartisan Caucus in the House

As Ryan/Trumpcare imploded, 27 members of a newly formalized “Problem Solvers Caucus” quietly met with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin in room 2020 of the Rayburn House Office Building to talk about a bipartisan way forward—not on health care, that’s way too toxic—but on tax reform and infrastructure, issues in President Trump’s wheelhouse where they might find some agreement across party lines.

Equally divided between Republicans and Democrats, these 36 lawmakers, some from districts that the other party’s presidential candidate won, are positioning themselves for an influential role as Trump tries to turn the page to salvage his legislative agenda after the health care debacle.

“What moves the needle is a bloc of voters, not one individual,” Republican Tom Reed told The Daily Beast. He ran ahead of Trump by three percentage points in his upstate New York district, and he co-chairs the Problem Solvers Caucus with New Jersey Democrat Josh Gottheimer, a freshman who won in a district that Trump carried.

They’ve been meeting with members of both parties every other week and building a measure of trust, a rare commodity on Capitol Hill. “We’re willing to stand with each other, and that sends a message to both our leaders (Speaker Ryan and Leader Pelosi) that it’s time to govern,” says Reed.

Forging a voting bloc to rival the 32-member Freedom Caucus is the goal. “It’s not just a talking point for your resume,” Gottheimer says. “We’re trying to act as a bloc and be part of the conversation early.”

Gottheimer, formerly a speechwriter in the Clinton White House, won his seat with the bumper sticker “Lower taxes, Jersey values,” defeating an incumbent Republican. Bipartisanship fits his district, but it’s a tough sell for Democrats who see the choice before them in the era of Trump as being part of the resistance or being a collaborator, a label that historically invokes more shame than glory.

“It can be uncomfortable and I get that,” Gottheimer told The Daily Beast. “It’s not for everyone.”
No Labels, the advocacy group for bipartisan solutions that led to the formation of the Problem Solvers Caucus, once claimed as many as 80 members in the House. After adopting the requirement to vote as a bloc, half of them drifted away, fearful of retribution from party activists and a newly energized Democratic left.

It took an act of courage when, on Feb. 8, 18 Republicans and 18 Democrats drafted and sent to the Trump White House a letter announcing their willingness to work with the president on a bipartisan basis. “You can put that number in the bank,” says William Galston, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution and a co-founder of No Labels. “Someone has to get the ball rolling, and 36 brave individuals did it.”

An opening for serious bipartisanship is something we haven’t seen in Washington for some time. Lawmakers willing to take the risk of incurring the wrath of party leaders, or activists, or a tweet from Trump, could potentially find themselves in a position to broker a deal.

Do the math, says No Labels spokesman Ryan Clancy. “If you hang together, the math is there. Pull out the Freedom Caucus (on the far right) and put in Problem Solvers, and you get over 218 (votes needed for passage in the House).”

That sounds easy, and it isn’t, but in this hyper-partisan time, it’s a start. Investor activist Nelson Peltz, a No Labels co-founder, arranged the meeting with Mnuchin. The hour-long session focused on tax reform, which the Treasury Secretary would like to see passed and potentially paired with an infrastructure package before the August recess. That’s probably unrealistic, but it sounds good to set a goal.

The lawmakers talked with Mnuchin about other federal policies and regulations along with the looming crisis of once again raising the debt ceiling, which will trigger threats from the Freedom Caucus to shut down the government. Mnuchin must have been thinking how nice it would be to pocket 25 or 35 Problem Solver votes to protect the full faith and credit of the United States.

At one point in the meeting, which occurred the day before the GOP leadership pulled the health care bill, Rep. David Young, an Iowa Republican, appealed to Mnuchin, “Please tell the president he needs to bring Democrats into the process on all these issues.”

Since then, Trump has trashed the Freedom Caucus in a tweet, saying they must be defeated along with the Democrats in 2018.

Trump was elected as a “doer,” says Galston. “He likes to build things, and he likes to save money on taxes,” so getting him engaged in something that is his passion, “that gets his juices going,” is the obvious next step for the Congress, and for a White House in search of a roadmap through the legislative thicket.

“If he doesn’t want to be held hostage to the Freedom Caucus, he has no choice but to revamp the single-party legislative strategy that took health-care reform into a cul-de-sac,” says Galston. “He can either become a failed president, or he can reach out and break the ossified mold that has paralyzed government for so long.”

Other administrations have not begun well, and some recover better than others. Historically, there is nothing in Trump’s 70 days that can compare to John F. Kennedy’s start (in mid-April 1961) with the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. “It was a catastrophic way to begin, and real people died,” says Galston. “The fundamental question is not whether a new President makes mistakes, what counts is the slope of the learning curve.”

A very busy secretary of the Treasury took the meeting with the Problem Solvers. Now it’s up to Trump, someone uniquely able to break free from Republican orthodoxy if he chooses. A bipartisan deal to repatriate billions held offshore by corporations and funnel that money into infrastructure spending could get 218 votes in the House. That would be in Trump’s sweet spot, and it would have the added advantage of beginning to fix what is broken about politics today.