‘We threatened the status quo’
When Gottheimer ran for the House in 2016, he expected to make a triumphant return to Washington alongside long-time ally, Hillary Clinton. Instead, he found himself in the middle of a firestorm. Donald Trump’s election had forced Democrats into a reckoning as they retreated into the political wilderness. Many of his colleagues even boycotted Trump’s first address to Congress.
The freshman House backbencher had no interest in any of that. Stranded in the minority, Gottheimer teamed up with like-minded GOP centrist Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) to relaunch a bipartisan group they earnestly dubbed the Problem Solvers Caucus as a chance for some relevance. Once described by Upton as a fraternity “without the hazing,” the group is an off-shoot of the centrist group No Labels, which evolved with new members and new leadership in 2017. (In another Clinton connection: its CEO Nancy Jacobson is the wife of Mark Penn, one of Gottheimer’s mentors during his White House years.)
The new group was invite-only. Each member would join with a member in the opposite party, a “Noah’s ark”-style initiation. If 75 percent of the caucus agreed to endorse a bill, 100 percent of their group must support it on the floor. The exception to that rule was the backing of a nonpartisan, Sept. 11-style Jan. 6 commission — an issue so divisive that even its leaders couldn’t keep the group together. When that commission failed and Pelosi created her own panel, No Labels skewered it as a “partisan exercise” distrusted by the public — a characterization Gottheimer fiercely disputed. Gottheimer has stressed that his group operates separately from No Labels and doesn’t always share the same mission: “There’s times I agree, there’s times I disagree.”
Over the next year, the Problem Solvers worked to insert themselves into the biggest battles of the Trump era. On Obamacare, their plan would have significantly relaxed the employer mandate to offer health insurance — from businesses with 50 employees to those with 500. On immigration, they backed a pathway to citizenship for young people, called Dreamers, along with more border security funding. None of those efforts, though, received more than a few headlines. “We threatened the status quo. It’s like anything in D.C., until you start getting some wins, people are hesitant to take you seriously,” Reed recalled of those early years.
As Democrats seized control of the House in 2018, Gottheimer saw another opening. He and a handful of others threatened to block Nancy Pelosi’s path to speaker without certain rule changes; they wanted to empower rank-and-file members in the House’s notoriously hierarchical structure. (No Labels was making a similar push at the time.) But Pelosi, who was already dealing with another group of rebels who were more intent on ousting her than securing any real demands on legislation, was not pleased.
After several tense weeks, Gottheimer and his group did secure some concessions. But they relented on a big demand to leadership — a promise that every lawmaker would see at least one of their bills come up for a vote in committee — after Pelosi summoned more than a dozen committee chairs to help kill their proposal.
His attack on Pelosi made Gottheimer a lot of enemies, and it didn’t end there. For much of those two years, Gottheimer and other centrists attempted to sway Democratic priorities at every turn. Things got particularly ugly in the summer of 2019, when long-festering tensions between the party’s moderate and liberal wings erupted on the House floor. Moderates like Gottheimer had pushed Pelosi to take up a contentious Senate border funding bill — which lacked protections for migrant children that liberals had demanded. When the bill ultimately passed, with 90 Democrats opposed, one progressive leader lashed out at the group as the “Child Abuser” caucus on Twitter — prompting a dramatic confrontation on the floor, though both sides of that skirmish have said they have moved beyond it.
Gottheimer, though, believed he was about to prove himself to this party.
As the pandemic raged through the fall of 2020, partisan sniping had left Trump and his party leaders with diminishing prospects of doling out badly needed cash. Most lawmakers believe they would end up adjourning for the year without money for testing and tracing around the U.S. Behind the scenes, though, Gottheimer and Reed — who’d drafted their own compromise bill that fall — kept communicating with the Trump White House, including personal bipartisan contacts with the then-president.
With the help of House and Senate centrists, Trump ultimately agreed to a $900 billion package, which Congress passed in the final days of 2020. Within hours, Trump declared he had changed his mind and threatened to tank that bill. On Christmas Eve morning, Gottheimer got on the phone with the president and beseeched him to sign it. He even offered to send Democrats to a signing ceremony. Instead, what he heard shocked him. “‘It’s not you,’” Gottheimer recalled Trump telling him. “‘I’m mad at the Senate, the Republicans who refuse to say this election was bullshit.’”
In the end, Trump called back to say he had caved — one of his final acts in office. That marked a dramatic turnaround from Gottheimer’s first foray into those tough legislative battles at the start of the president’s term. Sure, Gottheimer couldn’t fix Trump’s fury with his own party’s senators; but he’d helped cool the mercurial chief executive’s temper at the right time.
“The Problem Solvers were called the ‘problem makers’” in their early months, said Rep. Tom Suozzi, a similarly headstrong Long Islander who stood beside Gottheimer in many of these fights. “It’s just like, ‘Who do these people think they are? Who does he think he is? But as time goes on, it’s like, ‘Wow, there’s something happening here. Something’s getting done. It’s working.’”