Nancy Pelosi’s Problem Solvers Caucus problem, explained

Democrats from a bipartisan group are the latest faction to make trouble in Pelosi’s bid for speaker.

Another group of Democrats is threatening to reject Nancy Pelosi’s bid for speaker during a party vote on Wednesday if she doesn’t concede to a set of demands.

House Democrats of all stripes have tried to extract promises from Pelosi in exchange for their support. Now, nine members of the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus are doing the same.

They want Pelosi to agree to a set of rule changes they’re calling “Break the Gridlock,” which would essentially help decentralize power in the House and give rank-and-file members more ability to get bills to the floor. The group’s aim is to make sure bills that pass a Democratic House have a decent shot passing the Republican Senate and being signed on President Donald Trump’s desk, caucus co-chair Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) told Vox on Monday.

“If we’re going to get things done on immigration reform, infrastructure, and health care, not only do we have to get a vote in the House, but in this era of divided government, we have to get it through the Senate and the White House,” Gottheimer said.

Pelosi met with the group recently to hammer out a deal (she’s meeting again with them on Tuesday), but last week, the caucus was holding firm. On Friday, the group released a statement saying that without more of a commitment from the Democratic leader on their desired rule changes, they plan to withhold their votes.

“While we appreciate Leader Pelosi’s broad commitment to our effort, we have yet to receive specific commitments to our proposed rules changes that would help ‘Break the Gridlock’ and allow for true bipartisan governing in this new era of divided government,” the members said in their statement Friday. “Although we are at a stalemate in our discussions, and therefore cannot support Leader Pelosi for speaker at this time, we will keep working with the leader and others in hope of reaching consensus on specific rules changes for more bipartisan, common sense governing.”

But by Sunday night, the group had lowered their number of demands to three specific rule changes, some of which are already in the new proposed House rules package.

The “Problem Solvers Caucus” is the latest thorn in Pelosi’s side, in addition to a group of 15 Democrats who released a letter last week vowing to vote against her. And ironically, even though they are trying to get rules passed that would keep a House Freedom Caucus-like group from holding votes hostage, the Problem Solvers are getting slammed by some progressives who say they doing the very thing they proclaim to be against — holding the speaker’s vote hostage.

Pelosi has spent the past few weeks cutting deals and flipping some key House members who initially opposed her to back her for speaker. The Problem Solvers are the latest group she must bargain with.

What is the Problem Solvers Caucus?

The Problem Solvers Caucus is a bipartisan group of House Democrats and Republicans. It mostly consists of moderates from both parties and has close ties to the nonpartisan group No Labels.

The group is chaired by Gottheimer and Rep. Tom Reed (R-NY), and it broadly focuses bipartisan proposals on issues including immigration reform, stabilizing the Affordable Care Act, solving the opioid crisis, and improving the nation’s infrastructure.

But as the Washington Post’s Jeff Stein wrote earlier this year, the group doesn’t have a lot of policy accomplishments to show so far; of five different bipartisan packages the caucus has proposed, the only one that has been passed into law was a bill to stop the spread of synthetic opioids proposed by Rep. John Katko (R-NY). As Stein wrote, both liberal and moderate House Democrats question what exactly the Problem Solvers Caucus does.

“Have they solved any problems?” Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) asked Stein (Ryan is a moderate Democrat and one of Pelosi’s main detractors). “They’re yet to have made any progress with any real legislation — it’s not there, at least not yet.”

Still, just being in the Problem Solvers Caucus became a huge talking point for moderate politicians eager to tout their bipartisan credentials during the 2018 elections, even though the group didn’t have a lot of tangible policy wins to point to.

What do they want?

Fast-forward to late November, when House Democrats are on the verge of electing a new speaker and figuring out legislative priorities for 2019.

The “Break the Gridlock” reform package the group wants Pelosi to back is something No Labels has worked on as well. It’s an extensive list of rule changes, but by Sunday night, the group had narrowed their demands down to three. In essence, the caucus wants to give rank-and-file members more power to move bills to the floor, rather than have that power be consolidated with leadership.

The group hammered out its demands after frustration with stalled infrastructure and immigration reform bills under a Republican-controlled Congress, Gottheimer said. He pointed to the discharge petition to force a floor vote on a number of immigration reform bills, which had broad support among House members of both parties but which Republican leadership opposed.

“We had a bill with 290 people on it, and we couldn’t get it to the floor,” Gottheimer said. “That’s why we think this is so important.”

The three proposals they want Pelosi to back include a rule for expedited markups of bills that get at least 290 co-sponsors, a second rule that any amendment with at least 20 co-sponsors from both parties will get a floor debate and vote, and a third rule that every House member in a new session of Congress can introduce a bill in their own committee that would get a debate and committee vote, as long as it is bipartisan.

The caucus’s original list of demands included a proposal to get rid of the “Motion to Vacate the Chair” rule that gives any member of the House the ability to call for a new House speaker. This is a rule that the group believes effectively holds the speaker hostage to the whims of small groups.

Pelosi and House Rules Committee Chair Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) have already agreed to a number of the measures within the proposal, including raising the vote threshold one would need on a Motion to Vacate the Chair and the proposal to allow a bill with 290 co-sponsors to go through markup and be considered on the floor.

The Problem Solvers are trying to use their leverage to get Pelosi to agree to the whole package, but they are facing blowback from some progressive members accusing them of effectively holding the speaker’s vote hostage.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the self-declared democratic socialist Congress member-elect, used her formidable Twitter presence to call out the Problem Solvers recently.

She characterized the proposed rule changes as “GOP friendly” and said they will harm efforts to improve health care in America.

“People sent us here to get things done, not ‘negotiate’ with an admin that jails children and guts people’s healthcare,” she concluded.

Gottheimer disagrees, saying negotiating with Republicans will be the only way to get anything done under the new Congress.

“I know there are schools [of thought] here that say, ‘Let’s obstruct no matter what,’” he said. “That is not where we come out. We think these things are commonsense and straightforward.”

The dynamic of the Problem Solvers trying to get Pelosi to agree to their rule changes and being torched by one of the most progressive House Democrats for the attempt underscores the fact that the most opposition Pelosi faces is coming from centrist House Democrats, rather than the left wing of the party.

House progressives recognize that Pelosi (an early member of the Progressive Caucus) shares their values and is an important ally. Progressive leaders recently struck a deal with her during which she agreed to put more progressives on key House committees, including Ways and Means, Appropriations, Energy and Commerce, and Intelligence.

The Problem Solvers want to make their own deal, but talks are still ongoing, a senior leadership aide told Vox.

Pelosi is on a dealmaking spree

Since a group of now 15 moderate Democrats — separate from the Problem Solvers Caucus — announced their opposition to Pelosi in a letter last week, the Democratic leader has been on a dealmaking blitz.

Most importantly, Pelosi cut a deal with Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, the only House Democrat who was openly considering challenging her. Fudge had harsh words for Pelosi in an interview with the Huffington Post’s Matt Fuller back when she was contemplating a bid.

“Everybody wants to give her such big credit for winning back the House, and she should be here because she won. She didn’t win it by herself,” Fudge told Fuller. “If we’re going to give her credit for the wins, why is she not responsible for all the losses?”

But just a few days later, Fudge sounded much more conciliatory when she released a statement that she would, in fact, support Pelosi for speaker. At the same time, Pelosi announced she was naming Fudge the chair of the newly reinstated House Administration Subcommittee on Elections, which was previously disbanded in 2013.

A few days later, longtime Pelosi critic Rep. Brian Higgins (D-NY) took his name off the letter of Pelosi opponents and announced his support for Pelosi, after getting the Democratic leader to agree to work on one of his pet issues: lowering the age Americans can start receiving Medicare to 50.

And Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA), one of the leaders of the anti-Pelosi group, is now reportedly making overtures to Pelosi, asking her to consider removing Reps. Steny Hoyer (MD) and Jim Clyburn (SC) from her leadership team in order to get his vote, according to a new report from the Washington Post’s Robert Costa.

In other words, the chips are falling into place for Pelosi — a master dealmaker.