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In a divided Congress, Reed tries something different: Bipartisanship

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Problem Solvers Caucus co-chair Rep. Tom Reed, one of President Trump’s earliest congressional supporters, believes bipartisanship is the solution to some of the toughest problems gripping Washington, from health care to taxes. Nicole Gaudiano

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WASHINGTON – Problem Solvers Caucus co-chair Rep. Tom Reed, one of President Trump’s earliest congressional supporters, believes bipartisanship is the solution to some of the toughest problems gripping Washington, from health care to taxes. And in a sign of just how much this tax-averse Corning Republican is willing is to negotiate, he said he would entertain a tax increase on the wealthiest Americans if it helped lead to a deal on broader reforms.

“If I can get sincere legislators in a room and what they say is, ‘We respect your philosophical or your policy disagreement with us on the top 1 percent, but I need you to enact a Warren Buffet tax or some type of tax increase for the 1 percent in order for me to support relief for 300 million other Americans,’ I would entertain that conversation and negotiate with that legislator,” Reed said in an interview.

In a Congress dominated by partisanship, Reed, a four-term member who represents much of the Southern Tier, has been in the spotlight for reaching across the aisle.

The caucus in April announced support for a clean spending bill, without ideological riders, to avoid a government shutdown. In May, they said they would back a pairing of tax reform with infrastructure investment. And last month, they made a breakthrough on health care, releasing principles to help address uncertainty in the individual market that’s causing insurers to hike rates and leave Obamacare’s insurance exchanges. Reed is discussing the plan with the Trump administration and the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Now, Reed said, the 43-member group is working on a proposal to address the most urgent issue facing Congress when it returns in September: How to keep the government open and avoid the first-ever default on the nation’s debt.

“The partisan shirt-skins game is not productive for the American people,” he said. “We have to change the way D.C. operates or else we’re just going to continue the insanity of doing the same thing over and over again without getting anything really to the finish line.”

The approach is winning him fans among Democrats. While the House Democrats’ campaign arm is targeting Reed’s seat, caucus members agree to not campaign against other members or write checks for their opponents. The group — currently comprising 22 Democrats and 21 Republicans — met multiple times a week to hammer out their health care proposal, which they consider a model for how they can work together on other issues, said caucus co-chair Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J.

“Tom has become a good friend,” Gottheimer said. “We took turns with the beer and the tacos for the caucus and really dug in together. Tom always says ‘The key here is to work to getting to yes,’ and I think that’s exactly right.”

The Problem Solvers’ proposal, among other things, would guarantee reimbursements to insurers for offering plans with lower premiums and other expenses for low-income people. But it would also relieve some smaller businesses from the mandate requiring them to provide insurance and repeal a tax on medical devices.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, said of the proposal, “The Republican Leadership should finally move past repeal, follow the example of their members releasing some proposals with Democrats today, and come to the table for serious bipartisan conversations.”

Reed’s own leadership, however, hasn’t bought into the idea. “While the speaker appreciates members coming together to promote ideas, he remains focused on repealing and replacing Obamacare,” said AshLee Strong, spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

Reed said he still supports a repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act. Democrats targeting his district say he’ll have to answer for his vote in favor of health care legislation that the Congressional Budget Office says would lead to 23 million fewer people having health insurance by 2026.

In rowdy town halls, he has defended his vote, which he said during the interview was “to move the process along.” Now that it’s obvious a repeal is going nowhere, he said it’s important to work on a fix for the most “problematic” part of Obamacare, the destabilized individual market.

“My hope is…we have demonstrated that there may be a crack in the gridlock,” he said.

Reed said he considers himself a “governing member,” rather than a “centrist.” He has voted in line with the president’s position more than 97 percent of the time, according to the blog FiveThirtyEight.

He stands with conservatives on tax reform, another GOP priority this Congress. During his first term, he signed Americans for Tax Reform’s pledge to oppose increases to marginal income tax rates. A member of the Ways and Means Committee, he believes Americans’ tax burden is “way too excessive” and taxing the wealthy isn’t the solution to raising revenue.

But he’s still open to compromise. If he were to discuss taxing the top 1 percent of earners, he said he would call for tax relief for 300 million other Americans and a simplified tax code.

“What I’m trying to do is say, I’m bringing my philosophical beliefs to the table, I’m bringing my ideology to table but I’m not going to be hamstrung by it,” he said.

The Problem Solvers caucus was larger in the past, with about 80 members last year. When Reed and Gottheimer were elected co-chairs, they adopted new bylaws calling for members to vote as a bloc — a change they believed would make them more influential. They take a position when 75 percent of the full caucus — including a minimum of 51 percent from each party — agrees.

“We thought, ‘Why doesn’t the common-sense middle have stronger voice?’ and that was incentive,” Gottheimer said.

“Problem Solvers 2.0” weeded out members who were “just talking the talk” and wanted a “nice little thing” for their resume, Reed said. The membership loss “was maybe the best thing that we could have done as a caucus,” he said.

The current caucus members, he said, are “real leaders that are sticking their necks out.”

NGaudiano@Gannett.com

Nicole Gaudiano is a correspondent with USA TODAY Network’s Washington Bureau.

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