SALT LAKE CITY — Sitting around dinner at Sen. Lisa Murkowski's house last fall, four Democratic and four Republican senators, including Sen. Mitt Romney, cobbled together a less costly compromise to the $1.6 trillion coronavirus relief package House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was proposing.
That successful effort led to other senators — mostly centrists but ranging from the most conservative to the most liberal — joining the group, evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, that some now call the G-20, though Romney, R-Utah, calls that moniker "delusions of grandeur."
"We're not that important," he said in a recent phone call with Utah reporters.
Still, eight members of the bipartisan group recently negotiated a deal with President Joe Biden on $579 billion in new spending to improve the nation's roads, bridges and broadband.
Trust between Republicans and Democrats seems rare in Washington's hyperpartisan climate. And whether the infrastructure compromise becomes law remains to be seen. It's not typically the case that solutions that come out of those bipartisan efforts make it to the president.
Such proposals can be tenuous.
Biden made a statement last week that could have blown up the bipartisan plan, though he clarified over the weekend that he doesn't intend to veto the infrastructure bill if Congress passes it. Romney said he takes the president at his word.
"I am totally confident the president will sign it if it comes to his desk," he said on CNN's "State of the Union."
Still, Romney said on the press call that he can't say whether Democratic leadership in the Senate and House will do things that make the proposal harder to pass, "but I can say that this, in my opinion, is a major step forward to bipartisanship."
The importance of trying to build bipartisanship
"In a world in which partisanship seems to be more and more important and the two parties seem to be drifting farther apart, having some formal way, whether a formal caucus or informal connections between the two parties to come together, it's really pretty important," said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University.
Whether such bipartisan group approaches produce law depends on several factors, including whether the president and Democratic and Republican leaders are on board.
"The interests of parties and party leaders in Congress and the president matter more than anything else, but there are moments when these efforts can matter, when they can find some common ground to keep the two sides talking when other paths forward don't seem to be working," Karpowitz said.
Congress' most successful bipartisan group lives in the House, not the Senate, according to a June article in Politico. The 58-member Problem Solvers Caucus brought a massive spending bill back from the dead earlier this year. The caucus also released its own version of an infrastructure deal.
But with a new president, a new Senate majority leader and an insurrection later, Capitol Hill dynamics couldn't look more different than they did when the group helped salvage the COVID-19 bill. A deal that took place under a divided Congress and a lame-duck president won't be the same as any deal — if there is one at all — under a fragile Democratic majority, according to Politico.
Three-term Utah GOP Rep. John Curtis joined the Problem Solvers this year to facilitate and expedite issues with those who have the same desire. The group meets about once a week to talk about legislation.
"It's very evident to me that if you want to do lasting work here in Washington, D.C., it has to be bipartisan," he said, noting President Barack Obama's health care law and President Donald Trump's 2017 tax reform continue to face threats of being dismantled.
Thoughtful lawmakers have to reach across the aisle, he said. But, he said, they don't have to compromise to make something work.
"People call it compromise. I don't think it's compromise at all. I think it's finding a path to get everybody what they need," he said.
Curtis said occasionally he's a little discouraged because the group tries to find the middle ground instead of each side sticking to what's important to them.
"If I had a criticism of the Problem Solvers it's that sometimes there's an effort for everybody to move to the middle. That rarely works," he said. "What works far better is you hold your ground, I hold my ground, but look at this path forward. We both can get what we want here if we just work hard enough on it."
Curtis said relationships with other members of Congress are the best things to come out of such bipartisan groups. He said he can rely on those associations for a listening ear when he has an issue that is important to him.
Former Utah Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams, who was a member of the Problem Solvers during his term in Congress, said relationships and trust are the biggest keys to finding bipartisan solutions.
"It's so easy to point fingers and degrade the other side when you have no idea who they are and what they stand for and what they care about. Once you get to know people as an individual and respect them as a person, it makes it a lot easier to listen to their concerns and their ideas and try to find common ground," he said.
A key challenge to finding solutions
Not all lawmakers, he said, are interested in resolving problems.
"Some people would much rather have a reason to get on a soapbox than they would a solution that can address some of the challenges we're facing," McAdams said.
In a world of sound bites and social media, people are often rewarded for spouting off and punished for sitting at the negotiating table.
"But standing on a soapbox and pointing fingers at the other side has a human cost for people who suffer from the lack of solutions," he said.
Karpowitz said one of the challenges in Congress is that many members see it as being in their interest to have an issue rather than a solution
"If you're out of power, how do you get back power? By criticizing the party in power, by making sure that they can't pass what they want to pass, by highlighting all the things that you think they're doing wrong," he said.
"If you're in power, you want to highlight all the things that the party out of power might do that aren't very popular if they were to come back into power."
There's a "perverse incentive" for lawmakers to not do things because having the issue might make it more likely that they get reelected than having a messy bipartisan solution that doesn't fully satisfy either side, Karpowitz said.
Romney said though Republicans and Democrats disagree on many issues, they're friendly with each other.
"We have dinners together in each other's homes. We go on trips together. So, when there's something that's important, we've sort of gotten together," he said.
While Romney said the bipartisan Senate group considers the infrastructure plan a "great accomplishment," it expects to take on a new challenge: Raising the minimum wage.
"We're going to keep working," he said. "The interesting thing is, if you work on a bipartisan basis, there's the prospect of actually getting something to become law ... If you want to get something to actually happen, you have to work on a bipartisan basis, and that's what our group does."