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The Problem Solvers Have Their Own Problems to Solve

The fight over Ukraine aid is only the latest disagreement among the bipartisan group that has been fracturing since the fall.

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick and Rep. Josh Gottheimer
The Problem Solvers Caucus was created for quagmires just like Ukraine aid, with the dream of rank-and-file members forging consensus. Bill Clark/AP

The co-chair of the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus wants to solve the problem of getting Ukraine aid through Congress. But the group’s internal divisions could doom the effort as the latest in a long string of failed attempts by Problem Solvers members to, you know, solve a problem.

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, the Pennsylvania Republican who helps lead the group, is trying to force a vote on his bill to provide more military assistance to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. He’s met resistance not only from House Speaker Mike Johnson but also from problem-solving Democrats who see an urgent need for more Ukraine aid and agree the fate of the free world is at stake.

“It’s a distraction from what needs to be done,” Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Virginia Democrat and member of the caucus, said of Fitzpatrick’s bill.

The Problem Solvers Caucus was created for quagmires just like this, with the dream of rank-and-file members forging consensus. However, the group has been deeply divided since last fall, when members discussed Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz’s plan to oust then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Republicans in the group were outraged when Democratic members didn’t help McCarthy remain in power, accusing them of not truly believing in bipartisanship. Rifts between members are still evident today, as Fitzpatrick seeks support for his Ukraine plan without much luck.

Spanberger told NOTUS in an interview that she’d rather just vote on the $95 billion national security and foreign aid measure passed by the Senate last month to move things more quickly. “I just do not think that we should be kind of taking a step that is, frankly, a distraction and delay tactic, as opposed to getting at the real priority here.”

Comments like hers betray just how fractured the Problem Solvers Caucus is — and how the two sides are talking past each other.

Smaller groups within the caucus have continued to meet informally since the speakership fight, and it has kept endorsing bills. Yet the full caucus meetings, which typically happened about twice a month and featured guest speakers like foreign dignitaries and corporate leaders, aren’t expected to start again until the group has reckoned with its membership requirements. Fitzpatrick wants to raise the bar “to make sure that we don’t have Problem Solvers in name only.”

“For me, that means floor votes,” he told NOTUS in an interview. “You know, hard criteria on whipped votes on the floor. How often are you opposing your party leadership? Courage metrics, if you will.”

Currently, members agree to attend meetings and endorse a six-month rolling average of 75% of bipartisan bills considered within the group.

“Those bylaws clearly were not adequate because Oct. 3 should have never happened, under any circumstances,” Fitzpatrick said, referring to McCarthy’s ouster.

The caucus doesn’t have a firm timeline for deciding its new rules, but when it does, Fitzpatrick expects to ask current members if they agree to the revised metrics and whether they plan to attempt to meet them: “Some people might say, ‘I’m nowhere close to that and can never get anywhere close to that, and I’ll spare myself.’”

Does he envision kicking out members if they don’t accept the new requirements? “I would put the question back this way,” Fitzpatrick responded. “Why would anyone be part of a bipartisan group when they don’t want to conduct themselves in a bipartisan manner?”

Fitzpatrick introduced his Ukraine aid bill without getting the group’s formal endorsement first, but he said the internal disagreements weren’t the reason. “This bill was never meant to be a final product,” he said. “It’s kind of hard to get an endorsement of a bill that could markedly change.”

His strategy seems to have been lost on some of his colleagues. Democratic Rep. Salud Carbajal, another Problem Solver, shared Spanberger’s view: “First and foremost, the bipartisan package that we should be voting on is what came out of the Senate,” he told NOTUS. Carbajal added he wants any aid bill to include funding to help people in Gaza, who have been plunged into horrific conditions by Israel’s war against Hamas. “It’s laudable that they’re trying, but it falls short on the humanitarian aid,” he said.

Fitzpatrick, meanwhile, emphasized the bill he introduced alongside Maine Democrat Jared Golden was just a starting point and could end up looking a lot like the Senate measure. “That’s going to be in there,” he told NOTUS of humanitarian aid to Gaza, a provision he said he personally supports. “Of course it is. Are they not aware of that?”

Fitzpatrick’s discharge petition is structured to allow a substitute amendment before a final vote with new legislative language. That amendment would theoretically represent a “broad, bipartisan coalition that gets us to 218,” he said. Fitzpatrick’s original measure also aims to cut unauthorized migration (and win Republican support) by requiring most asylum-seekers to stay in Mexico while their cases are processed.

“We get one shot at this. We cannot screw it up,” he said. Fitzpatrick said he is working with co-sponsors in the House, leaders of House committees that deal with foreign policy and the armed services and Sens. Joe Manchin and Lindsey Graham to strike a deal. “We are kicking the hornet’s nest to try to jiggle something free.”

“Any of our colleagues that are criticizing our efforts are doing so prematurely and not knowing what they’re talking about,” he added. “They should extend the courtesy to their colleagues to talk with them before criticizing it. Because all we’re trying to do is show leadership.”

As of Monday night, Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern’s discharge petition to bring forward the Senate package had 177 signatures, while Fitzpatrick’s petition to schedule a vote on his own bill had 14. (Any petition would need 218 signatures to succeed.) McGovern’s petition isn’t much closer to becoming law than Fitzpatrick’s: Progressives aren’t giving it the signatures it needs because they don’t want to send more aid to Israel, as the Senate bill does.

Fitzpatrick hopes to make progress soon.

“Ukraine is not just fighting a battle for Ukraine. They’re fighting a battle for Europe and the United States and the world,” he said, noting in the interview that the country has “weeks, not months.”

Speaker Johnson, meanwhile, hasn’t offered his own plan. For months, he resisted taking up more Ukraine aid unless paired with stricter security on the southern border. Last Thursday at a House GOP retreat, after some of his members publicly discussed why he hadn’t outlined his strategy for Ukraine, however, Johnson told Politico he expects to bring forward a stand-alone bill to assist Ukraine and Israel that he believes would pass on an overwhelming, bipartisan basis. But he hasn’t revealed any details, and it’s not clear the Senate would accept it.

Some members of the Problem Solvers Caucus have signed both discharge petitions and are ready to support whichever can make it to the floor.

“If Democrats want to be serious, they’re going to look at the petition that has bipartisan support. That’s what it takes to move legislation in a divided House,” said Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, a Washington Democrat who co-sponsored Fitzpatrick’s bill and has signed both petitions. “I’d love to see more support for Fitzpatrick and Golden.”

She added that Ukraine’s situation as it defends itself against Russia is “desperate right now.”

“It’s frustrating to see people playing games with it,” she told NOTUS. “I want to see the kind of bipartisanship that can actually pass.”

Haley Byrd Wilt is a reporter at NOTUS. Katherine Swartz is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.