Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer is a newbie in the minority party in Congress, so he could be expected to play a low-key role for a while.
But Gottheimer, a former White House speechwriter who beat Republican Scott Garrett in New Jersey’s most expensive House race ever last year, has teamed up with Rep. Tom Reed, an upstate New York Republican who was one of President Donald Trump’s earliest supporters.
The two co-chairmen of the House Problem Solvers Caucus are trying to leverage a bipartisan group to get a seat at the table as Congress rewrites the tax code and crafts a plan to fund a major infrastructure rebuilding program.
The 20 Republicans and 20 Democrats in the caucus adopted rules saying they will vote as a bloc when at least 75 percent from each party agree on a policy. On May 23, they agreed that any effort to revamp taxes should also fund infrastructure.
“The group really believes we can get somewhere if we can find common ground and we’re willing to sit down together early in the process,” Gottheimer said. “One of the keys is that infrastructure and tax reform have to move at the same time.”
Right now, that is not happening. The tax plan being devised by the White House and Republican leaders in both chambers did not set aside any money to fund roads or tunnels. And they are planning to pass it using a rule that would block filibusters in the Senate, a sign the Democrats will not be part of the process.
Trump also spent part of the past week talking about infrastructure, but the program he touted focused on cutting regulations, privatizing air traffic control, encouraging private investment and requiring bigger contributions from states and cities – not a major increase in federal spending funded by changes to the tax code.
But taxes and infrastructure are both Trump priorities, and if they get bogged down in gridlock this year, that could provide an opening for the Problem Solvers to become players.
“I’ve been in D.C. since 2010 and 218 in the House is the magic number,” Reed said, referring to the votes needed to pass a bill. “Any time you can line up 40 votes in a united fashion, that gets a lot of attention and that’s the goal of what our caucus is trying to do.”
The power of House factions to affect the agenda was demonstrated during the debate this spring over health insurance. The arch-conservative House Freedom Caucus initially withheld its support for the American Health Care Act that Republican leadership drafted. After changes that won the support of the Freedom Caucus and outside conservative groups, the bill passed by the slimmest of margins.
Reed said that unlike the Freedom Caucus, which often acts to oppose bills deemed insufficiently conservative, the Problem Solvers “are trying to get to yes” by being involved at the start.
“We’re not about obstructing the process, but what we’re willing to do is come together and say to our leadership, ‘Look, if this is included and the other side is included early on in the process and these types of concepts are addressed and included in the package, we would be a block of 40,'” Reed said.
Before the Memorial Day recess, Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. each had private meetings with the caucus.
“Speaker Ryan has had the opportunity to meet with the Problem Solvers Caucus and is genuinely excited about the work it is doing to find bipartisan consensus on the top issues of the day,” said Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong.
Caroline Behringer, a spokeswoman for Pelosi, said Gottheimer “brought in Republicans that otherwise wouldn’t have come to the table in order to get things done for hardworking Americans.”
Gottheimer said the fact that the tax overhaul seems to be moving without Democrats or infrastructure does not mean his group’s pitch failed.
“This is just the beginning. This is going to be a long debate,” he said.
There’s a danger to this effort, however. If the Problem Solvers agree to support a bill the rest of the Democratic caucus opposes, Gottheimer could catch grief from his party. He’s already raised eyebrows for being one a just handful of Democrats to vote for bills the Republican majority suppported, including measures to roll back regulations, limit the power of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and to make it easier to fire workers at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“Pelosi’s an astute politician,” said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University who has studied Congress extensively. “She can can say, ‘Josh, that’s a great thing, just what we need,’ and other soothing things. Ultimately he and other members know she’s the party leader and whatever’s going to happen has go through her.”
Gottheimer, whose district leans Republican, is being targeted for defeat next year by the National Republican Campaign Committee, while Reed was on the most recent target list released this month by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Both said they just want to show voters they’re working to get things done.
“I believe that’s (what) people from the 5th Congressional District sent me here to do, to actually work on the challenges that we’re facing,” Gottheimer said. “And if you’re not at the table, you’re not in the room, you can’t work on it. So I really believe it’s important that we’re there. That’s what the caucus is doing.”