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Tom Reed's 'Problem Solvers' solve a problem, making enemies and friends in the process

WASHINGTON – Rep. Tom Reed's "Problem Solvers" solved a problem late last month, not in any Kumbaya sort of way, but by playing old-fashioned political hardball.

And then that coalition of solution-seeking Democrats and Republicans extended its reach to the other side of Capitol Hill, as like-minded senators endorsed a set of Problem Solvers principles aimed at controlling prescription drug prices.

Adding it all up, the House Problem Solvers Caucus in late June finally showed itself to be a force on Capitol Hill, one that's willing to leave some bruises in its wake but also to make common cause with its natural Senate allies.

The Democratic Problem Solvers essentially forced the House to accept a Senate compromise setting aside funding to handle the massive influx of asylum-seekers at the southern border, but  without the strict humanitarian requirements many House Democrats wanted.

The Problem Solvers' move meant Congress delivered that money to the border far faster than it otherwise could have, and Reed could not be happier about that fact.

"We were integral in breaking the gridlock on the funding for the border," said Reed, a Republican from Corning.

Then again, the Problem Solvers' move also meant the Trump administration got another $4.6 billion in aid for the border crisis with few strings attached – and no requirement that the administration provide migrants with decent living conditions.

Which is why Rep. Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat who co-chairs the House Progressive Caucus, lashed out at the Problem Solvers on Twitter.

''Since when did the Problem Solvers Caucus become the Child Abuse Caucus?'' Pocan asked.

That sort of vitriol is new for the Problem Solvers. Co-chaired by Reed and Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, the Problem Solvers have spent the last two years largely issuing policy proposals, preaching bipartisanship and being ignored by the House leadership of both parties.

But all of that changed in late June when about 20 of the Democratic Problem-Solvers threatened to withhold their votes on a key procedural measure on the Democratic bill setting aside funds for the southern border crisis, which would have set new humanitarian standards for the administration to follow.

Working with a narrow majority in which she could afford to lose only 17 votes without seeing the Democratic measure go down to defeat, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reversed course and abandoned that Democratic House bill. Instead the House took up the funding bill the Senate passed – which didn't include those humanitarian guarantees.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor)

In essence, Pelosi conceded to the Problem Solvers.

''In order to get resources to the children fastest, we will reluctantly pass the Senate bill,'' Pelosi said in a letter to Democratic lawmakers. ''As we pass the Senate bill, we will do so with a battle cry as to how we go forward to protect children in a way that truly honors their dignity and worth.''

More Republicans than Democrats supported the measure. Some 129 Democrats favored the bill, while 95 opposed it. Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, voted no, saying he would have preferred a bill that did more to protect families fleeing violence in Central America by seeking asylum in the U.S.

Overall, though, Democrats were divided and their comments afterward showed the depths of their division.

"The question was, would you rather just obstruct and delay, as some wanted to, or were we going to get humanitarian aid to children at the border right now?'' Gottheimer told the New York Times after the vote.

Meanwhile, the breakout star of the Democratic freshman class, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the Bronx, compared the moderates of the Problem Solvers to the conservative movement that bedeviled President Barack Obama, a Democrat, a decade ago.

"I think the Problem Solvers Caucus is emerging to be this tea party within our own Democratic Party," she told Politico. "I find their tactics to be extremely concerning. It's horrifying. It's horrifying."

Reed said, though, that what the Problem Solvers did was a simple matter of governing. The Republican-led Senate had already passed the border funding measure in a bipartisan 84-8 vote, he noted, indicating that the Senate had already struck a compromise position. That being the case, Reed said the House had to just accept that compromise.

"We want to deliver this relief to the humanitarian crisis to the border immediately, and not play political games or any type of extremism in regards to blocking and creating gridlock in the House," Reed said. "And I'm so glad to see that money now flowing as we speak."

The Problem Solvers' efforts extend far beyond the border crisis. In fact, on the same day the border bill passed, the Senate's "Common Sense Coalition," which had previously largely operated on its own, latched onto the Problem Solvers' bipartisan road map for how Congress can act to tame runaway prescription drug prices.

The Problem Solvers proposal revolves around greater transparency. It would force drug companies to show why drugs cost what they cost, and also would include measures aimed at increasing competition in the pharmaceutical industry.

While short of being actual legislation, those principles can offer Congress a pathway toward easing the cost burden of prescriptions, said Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat.

Sen. Joe Manchin, West Virginia Democrat (Aaron P. Bernstein/Bloomberg)

"Affordable health care is not a Republican or Democratic problem – it’s an American problem, and I look forward to working with my fellow colleagues on both sides of the aisle to ensure every American can access the medication they need,” Manchin said.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, another member of the Senate Common Sense Coalition, thanked her colleagues in the House for pushing for what she called a solution to high drug prices.

Speaking at a news conference, Collins said: "I was thinking as I stood here with my colleagues from the House and Senate, Democrats and Republican, how truly rare it is on Capitol Hill for us to have a bipartisan, bicameral effort devoted to solving a problem that affects Americans like the skyrocketing price of prescription drugs. So I want to salute all the members of the Problem Solvers Caucus for bringing us together, particularly its leaders, Josh Gottheimer and Tom Reed."

To hear Reed tell it, though, the Problem Solvers are simply doing what members of Congress are supposed to do.

"This is a dedicated priority that we have made in our office: to find that common ground," Reed said. "That's what the Problem Solvers Caucus is all about. And it is difficult. The status quo of Washington, I think, enjoys this gridlock, exploits this gridlock for their purposes. And what we are saying is: Enough is enough."

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