Rep. Dean Phillips is trying to keep the faith that bipartisanship will heal America

By: - January 15, 2021 8:49 am

WASHINGTON, DC – DECEMBER 01: Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), US Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) and US Rep. Dean Phillips (D-MN) alongside a bipartisan group of Democrat and Republican members of Congress as they announce a proposal for a Covid-19 relief bill on Capitol Hill on December 01, 2020 in Washington, DC. Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images.

U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips says he believes bipartisanship will heal America. But like any believer, he struggles with his faith.

The first real test came in December. Three of his Republican colleagues in the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus signed onto a lawsuit challenging the 2020 presidential election results in four swing states despite no evidence of widespread fraud or irregularities.

“I really thought about my ability to continue sitting at the table together,” Phillips said. “I don’t take exception to opposing opinions, I take exception to corrupted principles.”

To Phillips, no ideological divide is so great it can’t be discussed civilly over a cup of coffee. When he ran for office in 2018, he drove a kitschy 1960s milk truck around the western suburbs begging people to join him for “coffee and conversation.” (He owns two coffee shops.)

Disagreeing agreeably worked. He sailed the blue wave into office in 2018, easily unseating five-term Republican Erik Paulsen in one of the 38 suburban congressional districts that flipped to Democrats.

Phillips promptly joined the newly formed Problem Solvers Caucus, an equal number of Democrats and Republicans who fashioned themselves as the antidote to Congressional gridlock. Its members spin the group’s lack of big legislative victories as evidence they’re doing the dignified grunt work of finding common ground and whipping votes behind the scenes.

Just the exercise of talking across the aisle, they say, is useful.

“We have to listen to perspectives that are in many cases opposite our own. But that’s coupled with the fact that we’re the only table in the entire institution that provides a place and a space for those who are willing to disagree without being disagreeable,” Phillips said.

The uncomfortable alliance hasn’t always held. One of the most significant victories they claim — the most recent COVID-19 relief package — cost them one of their Republicans members.

But when members of the bipartisan caucus joined the swell of Republicans sowing doubt in the integrity of the 2020 election, Phillips says they violated the principle of truth. Four Republican members of the caucus voted to overturn the election results.

Phillips won’t say if any members should leave the caucus — it would set a bad precedent, he said. Instead, he decided to stay invested in the caucus and recently became a vice chair.

“I recognized that leaving the caucus would simply reduce the likelihood of Congress emerging from this in a way that might unify the country,” Phillips said. “And I think now more than ever, we have got to be intentional about sitting with people with whom we disagree.”

A recent call with the Problem Solvers Caucus made Phillips so fearful of what could unfold on Jan. 6 that he implored his staff to work from home. His Republican colleagues spoke about being inundated with threats of violence if they didn’t “defend the president.”

“It really became clear just how angry and impassioned and misled the people who were coming to Washington were,” Phillips said.

Despite intelligence reports of domestic terrorists planning a “war,” congressional staff didn’t receive any detailed plans for how to prepare for potential danger. The guidance they received was typical of other large events like the State of the Union address: arrive early, drive instead of walk, use the underground tunnels.

Once the armed mob breached the Capitol, the Secret Service swept the House speaker and majority leader out of the gallery. The rest of the Congress was told to take cover and put on their gas masks.

That’s when Phillips pointed across the aisle and yelled “This is because of you!”

He then urged his fellow Democrats to run across the aisle, hoping the insurrectionists might confuse them for Republicans and spare them.

“It was then I had a stark moment of recognition that we could change the side of the chamber we were on, but some of my colleagues could not change their skin color. And that meant some of us were going to be safer than others. And that is something I will never ever, ever forget,” Phillips said.

Phillips’ uncharacteristic partisan scolding of Republicans during the siege launched him to a level of national prominence he never came close to through the Problem Solvers Caucus. In the following days, his office was inundated with calls, and he became a loud voice calling for impeachment.

During his first Zoom press conference ever on Wednesday, Phillips punctuated his remarks with quotations from both Democrats and Republicans, including former President Ronald Reagan, who said, “Peace is not the absence of conflict, it’s the ability to cope with conflict by peaceful means.”

And Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, whose family was once Republican royalty: “The president of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob and lit the flame of this attack … There has never been a greater betrayal by the president of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.”

He described impeachment as a bipartisan effort, as if he could will it to be so.

“This is not an issue between conservatives and liberals. This is an issue between those who wish to overthrow the duly elected United States government and those who stand by the Constitution,” Phillips said during the press conference.

Just 10 of the 211 Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives joined Democrats in voting to impeach; four of them are in the Problem Solvers Caucus. It was the most bipartisan of any impeachment vote in the nation’s history, although there are only three others to compare it to.

Fewer Republicans voted for impeachment than Phillips expected, though what he wants to call attention to the ones who did.

“In this toxic political environment, with this toxic president, in a culture that rewards unity, and deeply punishes divergence, those 10 showed some real courage,” Phillips said.

Even when Trump incited a dangerous mob that stormed the Capitol and sought to detain and kill Vice President Mike Pence and members of Congress, his Republican colleagues still couldn’t bring themselves to oppose Trump. And now those four Republican members of Phillips’ bipartisan caucus may face Republican primary challenges, potentially reducing their numbers.

Since the siege of the Capitol, Phillips has turned his attention to his fellow members of Congress who may have enabled and encouraged the insurrection.

On Wednesday, Phillips announced another uncharacteristically partisan effort: censuring Republican Rep. Mo Brooks, who encouraged pro-Trump insurrectionists to “start taking down names and kicking ass.”

But Phillips defends the move as above partisan politics.

“Justice is not a partisan issue. Justice is a principle,” Phillips said. “And those members of the House of Representatives and those members of the United States Senate who are actively undermining the integrity of our country and our democracy have got to be held accountable.”

Phillips says there’s about a half dozen more who need to be held accountable, including any who aided in the revolt.

“You’ll be seeing a lot more on this subject,” Phillips said.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Previously, he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.