LONGVIEW — In 2017, Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler was invited to join a new caucus group in the new 115th Congress, to be known as the Problem Solvers Caucus. She declined.
Washington’s 3rd District representative first elected in 2010 had established herself during the Obama presidency as a rising centrist Republican from a historically ‘purple’ district. At first glance, the invitation had seemed a good fit.
In 2016, however, voters in Southwest Washington had broken a pattern of voting for Democratic presidential candidates to support Donald Trump, and voters across the U.S. returned a Republican House and Senate.
In the accelerating partisanship that followed, the Clark County congresswoman hung on to the majority train, enjoying the ride with her growing seniority in the majority party. The partisanship euphoria quickly turned bitter as the Trump presidency inflamed divisions in the country and in Herrera Beutler’s own district.
When the Democrats regained a solid House majority and Herrera Beutler weathered her toughest reelection challenge in 2018, bipartisanship gained new appeal for the Battle Ground Republican. In 2019, the Problem Solvers renewed their invitation. This time, Herrera Beutler accepted.
As Trumpism tightened its grip on the GOP, the party’s only voting woman of color in the House distanced herself from the immigration policies and political rhetoric of the White House. Herrera Beutler’s movement toward the middle, away from an incumbent president, helped secure the suburban vote and ensure her solid reelection to a sixth term.
One month later, facing unprecedented twin economic and pandemic crises, Herrera Beutler’s independent bi-partisanship streak has put her and her 49 Problem Solver colleagues in the Capitol spotlight, if not the driver’s seat, of the national debate over pandemic relief.
Suddenly in the post-election twilight of the 117th Congress, the $908 billion bi-partisan pandemic relief package promoted by the Problem Solvers — and ignored for months by the leadership of both parties — emerged as the most talked about relief legislation and prodded both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to action.
Democrats Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer backed off their initial $2.3 trillion relief plan and announced last Wednesday they could support the bi-partisan $908 billion plan. Tuesday, McConnell was still against the plan, but it continued to be the focus of Senate-House negotiators.
“The only reason that leaderhip is at the table right now is because of the pressure from the Problem Solvers Caucus,” Herrera Beutler told The Daily News this week.
“Most of us felt like this should have been done months ago, because we knew, months ago, that we were going to be here. This is not a surprise to anybody,” she said.
In a wide-ranging 25-minute telephone interview with The Daily News from her Washington, D.C., office, Herrera Beutler said she is willing to stay in the Capitol, away from her Washington family, through the holidays, if that is what it takes to provide at least some short-term relief to businesses, unemployed workers and health-care providers from the ravages of COVID-19.
“We are trying to get something that will pass both the House and Senate and the White House,” she explained. “We started this back in the summer, and have been the only real drumbeat trying to hold the leadership accountable — that has been the whole goal — Republican leadership, Democratic leadership, House and Senate. We’ve got to do something. And I think the only reason this is moving right now is because of the caucus efforts.”
“If McConnell is being dismissive, it makes me smile, because that means he’s feeling the pressure,” she said. “He’s got his senators saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got to make this happen.’ ”
“It doesn’t have to be our proposal, but it has to happen: We need to extend PPP, we need to extend unemployment insurance.”
“At this point there is a lot of agreement about the basic framework: the PPP [Paycheck Protection Plan for small businesses] money, the small business support through the disaster loans, vaccine development, unemployment insurance extensions.”
As of Tuesday, she noted that Congress was set to approve a one-week continuing resolution to keep the government funded and give House-Senate negotiators another week to finalize a relief package.
“If we have to stay here through the end of the year, I am more than prepared to do that,” she told The Daily News. “I don’t know how we can go home without it, honestly.”
I just don’t know how you explain it to the people you represent, I don’t know how you say, ‘We didn’t do it.’ ”
“From where I sit…no one is opposing it,” she said. “There are certain policy disagreements about aid for state and local governments, about liability shields, and those are the things that being hammered out.
Herrera Beutler said she believes her caucus offers a model of cooperation that House and Senate leaders should emulate. “The purpose of this group is to bring both sides together on commonality, where there is common ground, things that need to be done that we can get done. This is the bread and butter of why any of us got reelected.”