House centrists in both parties see their influence sapped by bitter internal tension

Personal animosity is still coursing through the House’s once-influential centrist bloc — particularly between the leaders of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, whose relationship started to unravel six months ago over saving Kevin McCarthy’s speakership.

Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) had enjoyed a close relationship as their Problem Solvers helped steer huge cross-party victories on pandemic aid and infrastructure earlier in President Joe Biden’s term. But that changed last year after Republicans appealed to a handful of centrist Democrats to help defeat a far-right push to eject McCarthy. A deal never came together, and GOP centrists took it personally.

Now the House’s once-influential moderate bloc is deeply fractured — at a time when its sway might otherwise be peaking, thanks to a two-vote GOP majority that has forced Speaker Mike Johnson to rely on Democratic votes for most major bills.

The Problem Solvers have faced past bouts of tension, such as in the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot that prompted some Democrats to disavow alliances with Republicans who objected to certifying the 2020 election, including two in their own group. But this time, the internal strife is more public.

“Our group is supposed to be a courageous strike force in the center — not a coffee club and not a discussion group. Just like in our personal relationships, bipartisanship must be a two-way street. It has to be a 50-50 relationship. Not 70-30, not 60-40,” Fitzpatrick told POLITICO, arguing that the group has continued its work despite the divisions.

Yet Fitzpatrick also openly acknowledged the schism, adding: “We can and will fix this.”

It’s a big problem for Ukraine aid, as the country runs short of money for its defense against Russia and a bipartisan Senate bill remains stalled by House conservative opposition.

The roughly 64 members of the Problem Solvers could easily have put up the votes necessary to force a Senate-passed bill providing security assistance to Ukraine onto the House floor or worked together to find another pathway.

Instead, Fitzpatrick sought other Democratic allies to move on Ukraine money as Gottheimer initially stayed out of the mix, chalking it up to concerns about humanitarian aid in the package. He’s since co-sponsored the bill.

“I joined the bill after introducing a humanitarian aid package, which I believe would have to be a key part of any package,” Gottheimer said in an interview. “I’m very proud of the work the Problem Solvers continues to do every week here in the narrowly divided Congress. It’s not always easy, but it’s critical, especially now.”

Two Problem Solvers from both sides of the aisle, Reps. Susie Lee (D-Nev.) and Andrew Garbarino (R-N.Y.), are working together on a system that they hope can help rebuild the group, according to three members with knowledge of their efforts, and lawmakers are already swapping ideas for the potential changes.

Their goal: measuring how serious any single member is about working in a bipartisan manner on major issues. Democrats have recently looked to Lee as a go-between amid the spat between the group’s leaders.

“I’m just working with everyone that I can and just trying to make sure that we continue to do the work that we’ve done,” she said.

Reps. Susie Lee (D-Nev.) (pictured) and Andrew Garbarino (R-N.Y.), both members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, are measuring how serious any single member is about working in a bipartisan manner on major issues. Democrats have recently looked to Lee as a go-between amid the spat between the group’s leaders.

The dysfunction is compounded as both sides question the other party’s leadership. Republicans view Gottheimer as behaving in his own best interest ahead of a potential gubernatorial bid next year, while Democrats see Fitzpatrick’s influence as diminished after the ouster of McCarthy, a onetime close ally.

Meanwhile, the bloc’s members have continued to meet on a partisan basis or in smaller subsections as the centrist power vacuum persists. The bloc hasn’t met as a bipartisan group in months, according to seven members, though its leaders insist they intentionally pivoted to the smaller groups and are still working as a bloc on legislation.

While Problem Solvers insist they’re still a potent force, they aren’t quiet about the ongoing split.

“We’ve been through tough stuff before. The Problem Solvers are bigger than all of us. Obviously, it’s run by people who need to be working together,” said Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Mich.).

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), his party’s last anti-abortion incumbent, lamented the “disappearing middle.”

With the Problem Solvers in disarray, Fitzpatrick has launched a separate bipartisan effort to force a vote on a compromise border-and-foreign-aid bill, working largely with Democrats from the centrist Blue Dog Coalition. Those lawmakers are preparing to launch a procedural gambit known as a discharge petition that would seek approval from a majority of the House to force a vote on their proposal. Some describe this as a “pressure point” on both parties’ leadership.

Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine), a Blue Dog and Problem Solver who’s helping Fitzpatrick steer the effort, said negotiators intentionally started with a smaller group: essentially himself, Fitzpatrick and Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.).

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) has said that the bill to combine foreign military assistance with the southern border led by Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) would be a “nonstarter.”

Their bill faces resistance from progressive Democrats who object to its inclusion of harsher border provisions and lack of humanitarian aid for Gaza. Republicans are equally skeptical, either because they oppose aid to Ukraine or are loath to undermine their leadership.

Democratic leaders are sticking to the Senate-passed bill as the floor for any foreign aid legislation, with House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries saying that the Fitzpatrick-led bill would be a “nonstarter.” And GOP leaders have largely argued they will address aid once they settle government funding, which has dragged on since September.

At the heart of the Problem Solvers’ bad blood that’s worsening the current Ukraine impasse, according to six lawmakers familiar with the situation: a meeting held on the eve of the October vote to oust McCarthy. During that sitdown, Republicans led by Fitzpatrick lobbied Democrats to vote to delay or table the unprecedented vote to fire the speaker.

Fitzpatrick asked for more time, contending that Democrats would likely have another opportunity to hurt McCarthy if the then-speaker failed to offer any concessions in exchange for their votes.

But Democrats were dubious. In particular, Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) passionately argued at the meeting that McCarthy needed to ask Jeffries for support if the GOP leader wanted Democratic votes — a move that nearly every lawmaker in attendance knew would have damaged McCarthy’s credibility with his own party.

Members like GOP Reps. Nick LaLota and Marc Molinaro of New York countered during the meeting that voting to table the ouster would protect the institution. In the view of Spanberger and other Democrats, however, McCarthy had failed to protect the House by not voting to certify President Joe Biden’s election — or urging his members to support certification — after the Jan. 6 riot, said these people, who were granted anonymity to speak candidly.

That revisiting of the Capitol attack’s immediate aftermath, a deeply fraught time for the Problem Solvers and the House as a whole, only compounded the stress of the moment.

Efforts at an olive branch since then, including suggestions of a retreat or a hash-it-out session over beers, have largely fallen flat so far. Instead, Republicans say they want to see changes in the group, even the possible removal of members. One Republican Problem Solver said that the group needs a process for gauging true bipartisan deal-makers to get its work back to full swing.

In addition to the Lee-Garbarino partnership, other members plan to review voting records and public statements of their colleagues to determine which Problem Solvers are genuinely willing to work across the aisle, according to three of the six lawmakers who also addressed details of the fall meeting.

Democrats defend themselves as ready to take tough votes while in the majority and point a finger back at Republicans — who, they say, are still unnecessarily sour about the crackup last fall as well as blind to the GOP’s own partisan pressures.

But one data point is particularly irksome to Republicans in the group: Fitzpatrick, a purple-district lawmaker, has bucked his party far more often this Congress than Gottheimer, who now represents a safe seat.

“The question has been asked, do we need to modify, get some reforms?” added Stevens. “I’m always all about evolving and continuing to chew on progress together.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article was accidentally published prematurely.

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