Moderate House caucus aims to take center stage in Congress in 2021

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan House caucus aims to take center stage next year after Democratic congressional leaders last week endorsed a Senate version of its coronavirus aid proposal as a framework for negotiations, but the ambitious goal faces some hurdles.

The House Problem Solvers Caucus, with 50 members evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, hailed the backing of the Senate’s bipartisan $908 billion relief proposal derived from their own measure by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

President-elect Joe Biden strongly urged its passage Friday, and even President has offered support for it.

“This model of how we’re working together, to me, is exactly the model to get things done in the next Congress,” said Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus with Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), at a news conference Thursday.

That assertion, however, has met with some skepticism and could be premature.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has not mentioned or embraced the bill, which includes funding for businesses and liability immunity for employers that he backs — but also money for state and local governments McConnell opposes.

Sen. (I-Vt.) on Friday said he opposed the compromise bill because it doesn’t include direct payments to working-class people and includes immunity for employers from COVID-19 liability lawsuits.

The relief package, which eight bipartisan senators introduced last Tuesday, still must be turned into legislative language and find a way to win passage in a divided Congress as time lapses and a deadline looms.

The proposed aid package, sponsored by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), includes more funding for unemployment insurance, the Paycheck Protection Program, transit agencies and vaccine distribution among other things.

If it passes, Pelosi said Friday, it will be as part of a major omnibus bill that includes appropriations to keep the government open through the end of next September.

Still, Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), a Problem Solvers Caucus vice chairman, credited months of work behind the scenes that resulted in the proposal and helped reopen negotiations between the Pelosi and Schumer team with McConnell.

The caucus proposed a $1.5 trillion relief and stimulus package in September, but neither Pelosi nor McConnell accepted it. Suozzi said it restarted stalled negotiations.

Suozzi rejected skepticism about the process the caucus is trying to build by trying to find common ground and inspiring trust between Democrats and Republicans.

“People that are skeptical, or people that would say that ‘Hey, it doesn’t work. Look at our current environment’ — well, everybody can say that,” Suozzi said.

“The cynics that have given us the system that we have now are propagating this broken system,” he said. “We need people to look beyond their partisan self-interest and look for what the country needs.”

The political environment will change next year, but it may not make it easier for the caucus.

Neither party will have a commanding majority in the House or Senate.

Democrats will have at most a five- or six-seat margin in the House after losing many of the seats they picked up in 2018 — including those of eight Problem Solver Caucus members, six of them Democrats.

Suozzi said he’s confident they can be replaced — Long Island’s newest congressman, Republican Andrew Garbarino, of Bayport, said he will join the caucus.

Yet the Problem Solvers Caucus also will have a rival in the Progressive Caucus, which will begin voting as a bloc. A press aide for that caucus did not respond to queries.

In the Senate, Democrats will have at best a tie with Republicans after Georgia holds a Jan. 5 runoff for both of its seats, with Kamala Harris as vice president a tiebreaking vote. Just as likely, McConnell and Republicans will retain their two-seat advantage in the chamber.

Support for the bipartisan bill could be the consequence of the circumstances of the deal..

“A model would be something that is replicated in the future and I don’t see this as such a turning point toward a more cooperative, bipartisan approach to governing, but rather a one-time under-the-gun compromise,” said Mark J. Rozell, dean of George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.

Matt Bennett, public affairs executive vice president at Third Way, a moderate Democratic think tank, said the jury still is out about Gottheimer’s claim.

“I hope he’s right; I don’t know if he’s right,” Bennett said. “This can be a model when the Republicans want something, because then you can compromise. The fear among Democrats is that they don’t want very much.”

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