In a political landscape churning with bitter partisan mud fights, Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, just joined a group that seeks to tone down rhetoric and find bipartisan paths forward. It could become a powerful player to determine what passes in a nearly evenly divided Congress.
The so-called Problem Solvers Caucus limits membership to 50 House members evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Former Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, served on it before he was defeated last year by Republican Rep. Burgess Owens.
“If you’re going to pass legislation in the next two years, it’s going to have to be bipartisan to get through such narrow margins,” Curtis said. The Senate is evenly split 50-50 (with a tie-breaker vote by Vice President Kamala Harris), and Democrats have a slim 10-vote House majority.
“I think that bodes well for a group like this,” Curtis said. “There’s been quite a bit of chatter in Washington, D.C., about the prominence of this group becoming even more important given the close splits in both houses of Congress.”
Curtis said the Republican co-chair of the group, Rep. Tom Reed of New York, urged him to join for some time whenever an opening appeared.
“Most of what they are looking for is tone, and how we approach differences,” Curtis said.
“He values my kind of style … not one of being bombastic and heavy criticism of the other side when we disagree” but instead trying to find common ground.
Curtis said he has watched the group closely and admired its approach as it did such things as help negotiate pandemic aid packages and immigration policy.
“I wouldn’t calling it compromising, I’d call it solving problems. They are very well branded,” he said.
“They don’t ask people to change their principles. They ask people to find paths forward,” Curtis adds. “That’s what I enjoy and have tried to do on my own. … I generally found that we could move forward and give everybody enough of what they need and can still get things done.”
Curtis notes that he is a bit of an anomaly for the group.
“Most of them represent districts that are kind of toss-up districts,” evenly split by parties where representatives often need to work across the aisle to survive. For example, McAdams — a moderate in Utah’s 4th District and a former Problem Solver — won his seat by fewer than 700 votes in 2018, then was defeated last year by one percentage point.
Curtis, however, represents an overwhelmingly Republican district, which is one of the safest for his party in America. He won by a 69% to 27% margin last year. “There aren’t a lot of us on Problem Solvers with districts like that,” he said.
An overwhelmingly partisan district often is more likely to elect a representative who may be an extremist to the left or right. While Curtis says his district does include many people who may lean far to the right, he says a bigger majority simply wants Washington to get things done.
“I think the vast number of people in my district want to move things forward. And I think there are ways to do that without compromising principles: by getting together and being thoughtful about listening to each other’s position,” he said.
Curtis has taken some positions that are a bit unusual for a Republican.
He has been a sort of lone wolf in the party on climate change — saying other Republicans should stop calling it a hoax and get to work on solutions. Problem Solvers “have asked me to get involved in their climate issues and serve on their climate committee,” he said.
Curtis was also among Republicans who publicly recognized early on that President Joe Biden won the presidential election. He later said the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol was “an act of domestic terrorism inspired and encouraged by” Trump — even though he later opposed impeaching him.
Still, comments by Curtis led to a death threat.
“I’m an optimistic guy, and I think despite what appears to be a rocky patch that the country is in right now, I think we’ll emerge,” Curtis said. He said the Problem Solvers “will help us … turn the corner of good debate and civility.”