The Infrastructure Bill Vote Is a Test for the Republican “Problem Solvers”

Are they going to save the biggest bipartisan bill of the year or cave?

The House has a Problem Solvers Caucus composed of 58 members, evenly split among Democrats and Republicans. They say their “aim” is “to create a durable bloc that champions ideas that appeal to a broad spectrum of the American people.” As infrastructure investment appeals to a broad spectrum of the American people, in June the Problem Solvers announced a bipartisan infrastructure proposal. In early July, the caucus announced that it “strongly supports the Senate infrastructure framework,” as it was “closely aligned” with its own. And the following week, the caucus cochairs spoke of “the urgent need to act and bring this standalone, bipartisan legislation to the House floor.”

Now that the Senate bill is scheduled to get that stand-alone vote on the House floor on September 27, how many of the 29 Republican Problem Solvers are on record in support of the bill?

Four. Only Representatives Brian Fitzpatrick (the Problem Solvers cochair), Fred Upton, Don Bacon, and Tom Reed (who is retiring) say they’ll support the bill. A fifth Republican supporting the bill, who isn’t in the Problem Solvers Caucus, is Representative Adam Kinzinger.

Monday the 27th is a test. Can the Republican Problem Solvers actually solve problems? Or are they just part of the problem? If they cannot support a bill for which the caucus has expressed support, it would prove that the Problem Solvers Caucus is a scam, offering bipartisan sheen without bipartisan substance.

The caucus has already been the butt of jokes in Washington. The idea for the group was cooked up by No Labels, a bipartisan operation that claims to be “a rebellious but constructive third force in American government that is finally poised to break the gridlock and dysfunction,” but which progressives view as a corporate front funneling dark money into the political system and financially supporting Republican congresspeople who pose as bipartisan pragmatists. But to date, the Problem Solvers have been an ineffectual third force. One congressional aide told Politico the Problem Solvers are like cicadas: “They pop up every 17 weeks with a bill, but really they’re just part of nature, and you should just ignore their noise.”

If the caucus does not want to be ignored forevermore, they need to declare their support publicly as soon as possible and vote yes when the bill hits the floor.

Fitzpatrick, a No Labels–backed Pennsylvanian who became a Problem Solvers cochair five months ago, is reportedly trying to corral his caucus, so the number of supporters could go up before the scheduled vote. But there is little reason to be confident. Politico’s Playbook cautioned that he is “new to this” role of caucus whip and “doesn’t have the relationships with his members” that the previous cochair, Reed, did.

And Fitzpatrick himself has been fuzzy about how much he can produce. Two weeks ago, he told Roll Call that back in August, he “potentially” had more than 40 Republicans prepared to vote for the bipartisan infrastructure bill (BIB). But that was before the Democrats began formally drafting their much larger Build Back Better (BBB) social spending bill, which is poised to pass on party-line vote through the filibuster-proof reconciliation process. Now Fitzpatrick claims that he is no longer sure if he still has that many.

This dog-ate-my-homework bit comes after Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a band of Democratic moderates agreed to schedule the House vote for the Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure bill for September 27. Fitzpatrick said that for many of those 40 or so Republicans, “support was contingent upon it not being in any way, shape, or form tied to reconciliation. Now, many of them are going to view this as being tied.”

Fitzpatrick’s narrative continues to twist and turn. In a separate Roll Call interview conducted on September 21, he was slightly more optimistic, relaying that “one of my colleagues who I never thought would be ‘yes’ told me he’s leaning ‘yes’ on it,” so “I think there’s going to be some surprises.” Still, he reiterated: “Linkage and delinkage has been the operative issue for so many Republicans, and everybody’s got a different definition of what that means to them.” Progressives have wanted the BIB and BBB linked because they don’t trust the Democratic moderates to follow through on BBB if the BIB passes first. But Republicans who are willing to support a traditional infrastructure bill don’t want to be accused of aiding and abetting a multi-trillion-dollar revamp of the social contract.

While these hesitant Republicans are acting as if Democrats will determine whether the BIB and BBB are linked, the plain fact is, with enough Republican votes, they can have the ultimate say. Republicans should recognize that the onlyway for the two bills to be linked is if Republicans vote with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives to kill the infrastructure bill. If they want to de-link the two bills, then they need to vote for the traditional infrastructure bill and try to offset the number of Democratic holdouts.

Is the Problem Solvers Caucus big enough to offset the Congressional Progressive Caucus? We don’t know yet. CPC Chair Pramila Jayapal has repeatedly declared that “over half” of her 95-member caucus will vote against the BIB if it comes to the House floor before the big reconciliation passes. If you don’t believe me, she says, “try us.” That would mean at least 48 Democratic holdouts. In a 220–212 House, Republicans would have to produce at least 45 yes votes to overcome the progressive dissidents. The 29 Republican Problem Solvers on their own would not be enough.

However, we still don’t have 48 individual Democrats on the record sharing Jayapal’s and Ocasio-Cortez’s unwavering stance. As of this writing, an unofficial whip count effort jointly produced by The American Prospect, The Intercept, and The Daily Poster has 21 Democrats publicly prepared to vote no. Another one by The Hill pegs that number at 11. (Interpreting how definitive these public statements are can be subjective.) If the Problem Solvers functioned like the bloc they claim to be, they could get the long-awaited bipartisan bill over the finish line.

Supposedly, the Problem Solvers have an internal policy in which if 75 percent of their 58-person caucus, or 44 members, supports a bill, then the whole caucus must vote for it. For example, if 15 Republican Problem Solvers publicly join all 29 of their Democratic counterparts, all of the other Republicans are obligated to come along.

The Problem Solvers have been meekly dithering for the past several days while the Progressive Caucus has been confidently boasting, a dynamic that strongly suggests that the infrastructure bill will fail to pass on Monday. But if the Problem Solvers announce ahead of time that their caucus in full will vote for the bill, it could limit the ability of the progressive whips to generate more than the 20 public holdouts.

Of course, the Republican Problem Solvers have no track record of crossing the aisle when it really counts, so expecting a courageous and dramatic announcement of mass support would be foolish. But they should ask themselves: Do we want to shift power from the ideological fringes toward the center? Or do we want to shred our credibility so that no Democrat would ever trust us again?

They need to answer that question before the vote on the 27th. If the Problem Solvers want to live up to their name, there’s only one answer.

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Bill Scher

Bill Scher is the host of the history podcast "When America Worked" and the co-host of bipartisan online show and podcast "The DMZ"