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WASHINGTON – Rep. Dean Phillips has his limits, a sense of where he draws the line.
Well into his second term holding a Minnesota congressional seat coveted by Republicans, the idea of bipartisanship in a polarized Washington is crucial for the Democrat. It is a lofty ambition with grim odds, and an ideology facing a fresh test with legislative challenges on infrastructure and voting rights. Shadowing it all are the emotional aftershocks of the violent Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection and former President Donald Trump's strong influence over the Republican Party that continues to strain those reaching for middle ground.
"The members who I believe bear responsibility for January 6, I will not work with because I believe they are dangerous, plain and simple," said Phillips, whose district includes large swaths of western Minneapolis suburbs. "And by the way, I don't think they'd work with me. But that means there are 429 others with whom I'm happy to work with."
Democrats hold the White House and control Congress. That power comes with the thinnest of majorities in the Senate, and just a few seats proving to be the difference in the House. Looming over their work is the Senate's legislative filibuster threshold, which means Democrats in that chamber need the buy-in of at least 10 Republicans to pass most measures.
Clinging to the concept of bipartisanship within Congress is the 52-year-old Phillips.
"The notion that somehow one side or the other can win in perpetuity is misguided and dangerous," he said. "And the more that what I call the political industrial complex uses that premise to succeed in elections, the more likely we are to be spiraling downwards."
Congress is brimming with groups of colleagues with similar interests, including the 58-member bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus, in which Phillips now serves as a vice chair. Phillips takes pride in the impact that he, the Problem Solvers, and fellow caucus member Rep. Dusty Johnson, had on the issue of COVID-19 relief last year.
"Dean and I don't agree on all policies, but I'll tell you what, the guy does want to make America better," said Johnson, a Republican representing South Dakota. "And that is not the motivation of every single member of Congress to the same extent that it is his."
Still Vince Beaudette, the deputy chairman of Minnesota's Third Congressional District Republicans, said Phillips' "record is anything but bipartisan."
"He's voting far left," Beaudette said. "And I think he's badly misrepresenting himself. He's a fraud as bipartisanship goes, and I would say that directly to him."
Words like that don't appear to surprise Phillips.
"I sadly expect GOP chairs to do anything in their power to demean, diminish and disintegrate good work," Phillips said. "And when I talk about the political industrial complex, that's what I'm talking about. That is the biggest problem in our country. It's not unique to the GOP, Democrats do it the same way. I look at some of my colleagues who are principled, decent, good people and how Democratic activists treat them, and I'm just as appalled."
Fellow Minnesota Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar said of Phillips in an interview last month that "he's not somebody I communicate with or do much work with."
"If you can't find bipartisanship in investigating an insurrection, you can't find bipartisanship in ending police brutality, if you can't find bipartisanship in defending our democracy, I don't know what people like him are in search of doing," Omar said.
With majority control, House Democrats have moved on their own as a party, just as Republicans did when they were in power. Phillips voted for the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 aid package that was signed into law in March despite steadfast Republican opposition in Congress. He was a vocal supporter of the voting rights and ethics package known as the For The People Act that House Democrats passed with no Republican votes earlier this year. Senate Democrats' version of the legislation was blocked by Republicans in June.
Now Phillips is looking to find common ground on voting rights, one of the most divisive issues across the country. "I guarantee you that if it was up to our group of 58 (members), we could come up with a voting rights bill that would include a whole lot of important and meaningful elements of (the For the People Act)," Phillips said. "Some voter I.D. standards, some other Republican initiatives to ensure that there's some consistency relative to elections, we could get it done. I'm hopeful."
The debate over infrastructure is a whole other matter testing his approach. Democratic President Joe Biden recently endorsed a framework from a bipartisan group of senators. But Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has warned "there ain't going to be no bipartisan bill, unless we are going to have the reconciliation bill." The talk of potentially involving a separate spending push, that through the reconciliation process could get around the Senate's legislative filibuster, has already inspired concern from Republicans about the bipartisan infrastructure effort.
"They're different packages," Phillips said. "They should each stand on their own two feet." He added that "if we tie them together and end up with nothing, then I say, shame on every one of us."
Meanwhile, the House GOP's campaign arm has already listed Phillips' seat as a focus for them with the 2022 midterms in mind.
"Dean votes with Nancy Pelosi 99 percent of the time, so Minnesotans should take his claim that he is bipartisan with a grain of salt," National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Rep. Tom Emmer, who also represents a Minnesota district, said in a statement.
Phillips has a reminder of a bipartisan win in his office, a note from Texas Republican Rep. Chip Roy. Alongside it sits a pen from last year when Trump signed into law legislation Phillips and Roy worked on called the Paycheck Protection Program Flexibility Act.
"Dean — It was and is an honor to work with you. Here's the pen I promised! God Bless & Merry Christmas," Roy wrote.
Since then, Roy has voted against making Juneteenth a federal holiday. He's voted against an act that would award congressional gold medals to law enforcement for their service on the day of the Capitol attack, and he voted against creating a bipartisan commission to investigate Jan. 6.
Unlike Roy, Phillips voted for all three of those measures.
"Chip and I don't see a lot of things the same way, and there's some votes that clearly trouble me," Phillips said. "But I would work with him again, because I've done so in the past and if we so limit the universe of people with whom we're willing to work in this institution, there's no way to fulfill your responsibility to either the Constitution or to our constituents."
An index of the 2019-20 Congress from the Lugar Center and Georgetown University found Phillips to be one of the most bipartisan House lawmakers, giving him the 12th-highest score in the chamber.
"There are some members who want everything or nothing," said Minnesota Rep. Angie Craig, a fellow Democrat in a swing district, when asked about Phillips. "That's not us."
Hunter Woodall • 612-673-4559