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Reed's 'Problem Solvers' vow to conquer gridlock in the House

WASHINGTON – Rep. Tom Reed's "Problem Solvers" haven't solved any problems, really, in more than a year of trying to break through partisan gridlock in the House.

But the midterm election in November could solve that problem for the bipartisan group – and then some.

Reed, a Corning Republican, and 15 other members of the Problem Solvers Caucus are vowing to withhold their votes for a new House speaker unless that candidate agrees to the group's plan for changing the House rules to give rank-and-file members more of a say in the lawmaking process.

And by doing so, the Problem Solvers – led by Reed and Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey – could end up kingmakers in the new Congress.

"If we get what we think is going to happen, with a tight majority, we're going to be in a very good position with a new speaker coming into office to have that opportunity to change the institution to start working for the people again," Reed, a Republican from Corning, said in a recent interview.

Asked if that meant that this small group of Problem Solvers could choose the new speaker, Reed said: "Possibly. Absolutely."

Of course, Reed's plans depend heavily on what happens in the November election both nationally and in his Southern Tier District, where he faces a challenge from Democrat Tracy Mitrano. Mitrano, a cyber security expert, argues that Reed's hard-line Republican support for the GOP tax bill and other measures have hurt his district.

Reed, meanwhile, has used his role with the Problem Solvers to burnish his reputation as a moderate who, with his like-minded colleagues, could be power brokers in the new Congress.

If there's a sizable Republican majority in the 435-member House next year – or a sizable Democratic majority – the wishes of Reed and the other Problem Solvers won't matter so much.

But for now, the Problem Solvers sound confident that, through force of will, they will be able to enact their "Break the Gridlock" rules changes to get the House functioning better.

"The leadership needs to bring people together," said Rep. Tom O'Halleran, a Democrat from Arizona who was one of several Problem Solvers to speak at a recent luncheon sponsored by the centrist "No Labels" group. "The political side of things is tearing us apart."

In hopes of changing that, the proposed rules changes would:

• End the so-called "Hastert rule," which usually only allows legislation to come to the floor of the House if it can pass with a majority of the  majority party's votes.

• Eliminate the "motion to vacate the chair," which currently allows any dissident lawmaker to call a vote to oust the speaker at any time.

• Give fast-track priority to bipartisan legislation and guarantee that bills with bipartisan support get full consideration by House committees.

• Allow both parties to have at least one amendment to major legislation to be considered on the House floor.

• Require that the Rules Committee consider any amendment with 20 Republican and 20 Democratic cosponsors.

The Problem Solvers have learned the hard way that, absent such rules changes, their power will be limited.

In the past year, the group of 44 House members – split evenly between the two parties – has put forth bipartisan proposals on health care, immigration and infrastructure investment. And all they got was a bunch of laudatory newspaper editorials rather than any real legislative action.

They expect that to change if they get their rules changes passed, and they're willing to do some drastic things to make that happen.

Reed, for example, has said he would even be willing to vote for the Democratic speaker candidate if that candidate agreed to the rules changes and the Republican candidate doesn't.

Other Problem Solvers are drawing an equally hard line.

"We will not allow a speaker to be chosen until we get the rules changes done," Rep. Mike Coffman, a Colorado Republican, said at that No Labels luncheon. "This is our chance to make a difference."

They are already making a difference. One possible Democratic candidate for speaker – Minority Whip Steney Hoyer of Maryland – has spoken admiringly of the proposed rules changes. So has one of the likely Republican speaker candidates, Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana.

Even some lawmakers who aren't part of the Problem Solvers group like what they see in the proposed rules changes.

"The entirety of their recommendations has not been put into bill form and as they do I will support most if not all of the proposed reforms," said Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat who blames Democratic leadership for the fact that his biggest proposals – a $1.5 trillion infrastructure package and a proposal to open Medicare to those over the age of 50 – have gone nowhere.

The most partisan of House members aren't exactly keen on the Problem Solvers' proposals. Rep. Austin Scott, a Georgia Republican, is pushing a proposal that would make the House even more partisan. He suggests a rules change by which GOP lawmakers who break with the party line would have to go before the Republican Study Committee to explain themselves and maybe face punishment through the loss of committee assignments.

"The general consensus was, it's a good idea, but the timing of having that debate right now is not good timing,” Scott told the Washington Post recently. “Most people think we ought to wait and do it as we organize for the next Congress."

That reorganization in early January will be crunch time for the Problem Solvers, who acknowledge that longtime party leaders might prove reluctant to loosen the reins – and might try to pressure and/or punish the lawmakers pushing for change.

Since many of the Problem Solvers come from swing districts, "we're pretty tested when it comes to taking hard votes," Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a Florida Democrat, said at the No Labels event. "This won't be our first rodeo where we bucked our party and our leadership on a vote."

What's more, Reed said plenty of lawmakers who are not officially Problem Solvers realize that the rules that govern the House are a problem that needs to be solved.

"If you talk to many members, there's a shared frustration across all spectrums that we now have become in the House of Representatives way too top-down-driven," he said. "I'm just kind of the tip of the iceberg."

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