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Reed's 'Problem Solvers' push Congress to agree on getting things done

WASHINGTON – America, we have a problem.

And two unlikely figures – a onetime tea party Republican from Corning and a New Jersey Democrat who has been in Congress for all of seven months – have banded together with more than three dozen of their colleagues to try to solve it.

Rep. Tom Reed, who represents much of New York's Southern Tier, and first-term Rep. Josh Gottheimer, lead a revamped House "Problem Solvers Caucus." The caucus aims to do what more prominent politicians have tried and failed to do.

The Problem Solvers want to solve problems – the biggest one of all being the inability of Congress to get much of anything done.

While they haven't solved anything yet, the Problems Solvers last week introduced a modest plan to fix Obamacare's most pressing troubles. In doing so, they won laudatory editorials in the New York Times and the Washington Post and paved a path for senators who actually might accomplish something on health care this fall.

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It's all very rewarding, Reed said in an interview, adding that the real reward would be helping to narrow the nation's great political divide, bit by bit, issue by issue.

"What we want to do is govern," Reed said. "We want to get to 'yes.' "

That's what Gottheimer wants, too.

"Finding a way forward is the key, and that's what we got to here," Gottheimer said in reference to the Problem Solvers' health care plan.

For the Problem Solvers, the way forward progressed in stops and starts.

Loosely allied with "No Labels," a citizens group that aims to encourage the two parties to meet in the middle, a Problem Solvers Caucus emerged in the House a few years ago. As many as 80 House members from both parties would gather from time to time to get to know each other and to chew over the issues of the day.

To hear Reed tell it, the only problem the caucus solved at the time was one some lawmakers faced at the ballot box back home.

"A lot of them were using it just for political talking points," Reed said.

Early this year, Reed decided that the Problem Solvers needed to reboot. He proposed a change to the caucus bylaws: Members would agree to vote as a bloc on the bipartisan solutions the group devises.

That change prompted the caucus to shrink temporarily to about 30 members. Now, though, membership has bounced back to 43, Reed said.

That vow to vote together as a bloc gives the caucus something it never had before: political leverage. Just as the hard-right Freedom Caucus' 30 or so members can determine the fate of legislation, so, too, can the Problem Solvers.

Nevertheless, the group Reed calls "Problem Solvers 2.0," started slowly, outlining a position of the federal budget and suggesting that tax reform be tied to an infrastructure package.

At first, members of the group thought the health care issue was too big and too partisan for them to tackle.

All that changed in recent weeks. As Senate Republicans struggled to come up with a health care reform bill that could pass, the Problem Solvers started meeting above and beyond their usual Thursday lunchtime gatherings.

On several late nights, fueled by pizza and tacos and what Reed called "your beverage of choice," the bipartisan group of lawmakers put together a health care bill that aims to prevent Obamacare from falling apart.

The proposal aims to stabilize the market for individual health plans by making federal subsidies for them permanent and creating a fund that states can tap into to reduce premiums. And while those provisions appeal to Democrats, others – an end to the requirement that small businesses provide insurance to their employees, and an end to the medical device tax – come straight from the Republican health care playbook.

Wonky as it all is, the Problem Solvers' plan won accolades from all over the mainstream media.

"Capitol Shocker: Democrats and Republicans start working together on health care," read the headline on a New York Times editorial.

"Finally, a real plan to fix Obamacare," read the headline on the Washington Post editorial lauding the plan.

Amid all the positive publicity, lawmakers from both parties privately expressed support for the Problem Solvers' approach on health care, members of the group said.

"It's remarkable that we've gotten the traction that we have," said Rep. Kurt Schrader, a Democratic Problem Solver from Oregon.

Predictably, though, the Problem Solvers – and the lawmakers in it – faced a much more hostile reaction from the partisan trenches.

"Some people still just want to play the shirts-and-skins game," Reed said.

Proof of America's lingering partisan divide can be found on Reed's Facebook page.

From the right, a voter named Bill Blood wrote: "You are breaking your promise that you would repeal Obamacare."

And from the left, a voter named Jim Kennedy chided Reed for his longtime support for President Trump, telling the lawmaker: "You're a Trumpian Tommy Come Lately."

More ominously, a spokesman for House Speaker Paul Ryan reacted to the Problem Solvers' health plan with a tepid statement.

“While the speaker appreciates members coming together to promote ideas, he remains focused on repealing and replacing Obamacare," the Ryan spokesman, AshLee Strong, told the Washington Post.

The plan met a much warmer reception in the other chamber of Capitol Hill. The chairman of the committee that oversees health care issues in the Senate, Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, announced plans to hold a bipartisan hearing on health care proposals that parallel what the Problem Solvers propose.

"For the short-term, our proposal is that by mid-September we will see if we can agree on a way to stabilize the individual insurance market to keep premiums down and make affordable insurance available to all Americans,” said Alexander, who spoke with Reed on the phone about that proposal last week.

For the Problem Solvers, that would be only the beginning. Reed said he foresees the group weighing in on the huge issues that could make September an especially perilous time on Capitol Hill: meeting a deadline for the budget and spending bills, along with legislation to raise the nation's debt ceiling so the government can continue paying its bills.

As the group pursues those issues, it is likely to have help.

"Over the past week, I can't tell you the number of members who've reached out to us to say: 'How can we become part of this?'" Reed said.

The group can only grow so fast, though, because of what Reed calls "the Noah's ark rule": For every Republican that joins, a Democrat must join, too; and vice versa.

Even so, members said the caucus is likely to continue to grow, just because many lawmakers – like Rep. John Faso, a Republican Problem Solver from Kinderhook – say they're frustrated at the lack of bipartisan compromise in Congress.

"I am really convinced that the public is not too interested in philosophical and ideological divisions," Faso said. "They're more interested in practical solutions."

And that's just what the Problem Solvers are drawing up, said Ryan Clancy, chief strategist at No Labels, a bipartisan reform group.

"These guys are stars," Clancy said. "This is exactly the kind of leadership we want to see."

But it's not exactly the kind of leadership Reed promised when he was first elected to Congress as a part of the Tea Party wave of 2010.

Back then, Reed pressed for fast, hard-right solutions to the nation's budget problems as well as a full repeal of Obamacare.

"You get this huge wave and you think: Let's change the direction of the country overnight," Reed said.

That idealistic goal faded quickly for Reed amid the give-and-take – and stalemate – of legislating.

And over time, he learned a lesson he's acting on now.

"The institution and the Constitution are designed in such a way that forefathers recognized that having these hard-right, hard-left turns in our direction as a country is not the best way to govern," he said.

Increasing numbers of his colleagues in Congress realize that now, too, Reed said, and they are acting on that realization.

"You've got your extremes on the left and the right that are living off of the division in this country. And we just said: Enough is enough," he  said.

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