Mitchell parts ways with bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
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U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell says he's withdrawn from a prominent bipartisan House caucus over a disagreement with colleagues over federal aid for state and local governments during the pandemic — something he opposes. 

Mitchell, a Dryden Republican, said he quit the 50-member Problem Solvers Caucus in recent weeks but didn't provide an exact date. 

His departure became public when Mitchell expressed opposition Wednesday to the $908 billion COVID-19 relief framework that the caucus endorsed this week in conjunction with a group of nine centrist senators. 

The bipartisan framework has gained some traction among senators from both sides of the aisle, and with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who said Wednesday it should be "used as the basis for immediate bipartisan, bicameral negotiations."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McDonnell of Kentucky is pushing his own COVID relief framework, but spoke with Pelosi Thursday about reaching a deal before Christmas. 

The impact of Mitchell's exit from the Problem Solvers group is likely minimal since he is retiring from Congress at the end of this year, and new members are expected to join next session starting in January. But it's unusual to see a member depart the caucus in a public way over a policy dispute. 

Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Mich., is quitting the Republican party.

The offices of Reps. Josh Gottheimer, D-New Jersey, and Tom Reed, R-New York — co-chairs of the Problem Solvers Caucus — did not respond to requests for comment. 

Mitchell said he couldn't support the bipartisan framework because it calls for $160 billion in aid for state and local governments, which he called the start of a federal revenue-sharing program. 

"It's excessive," he said in an interview. "It is a stimulus package for local government — state government, frankly. Let's be honest about it."

He predicted that states and localities would use the money to continue to keep government workers on the payroll, even though a number of government services simply aren't being provided during the pandemic. 

Mayors and governors have pleaded with Congress for direct aid during the pandemic, emphasizing their struggle to support emergency responders and maintain basic services, while mitigating an unexpected drop in revenues.

Government revenue from investments, sales and gas taxes, building permits, facility rentals and other fees evaporated during the early days of the shutdown as construction halted, large gatherings were suspended and residents were asked to stay home.

Mitchell blasted localities for what he described as empty threats that they might lay off firefighters or other public safety officers if they can't fill holes in their budgets, calling them "fear tactics." 

"That's simply not necessary or true, but that's their backup argument to everything," Mitchell said. "When was the last time we talked about the fact that we should lose some bureaucrats?"

Many other members of the Problem Solvers, given the states they hail from, are focused on bolstering state and local governments, Mitchell said. But he said those governments need to deal more effectively with the problem.

"I understand where they're coming from, but an awful lot of the issues of state and local governments is because they've shut down revenue services — they've shut down their businesses," he said. 

Mitchell pointed to Michigan as an example of a jurisdiction that's hurting because of how it's handled COVID-era restrictions during the pandemic, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's three-week "pause" amid growing virus cases and deaths that closed restaurants to indoor dining and high schools and colleges to in-person learning through Dec. 8.

"The data says the majority of transmission of COVID has not been through restaurants but through family, get-togethers, friends, that kind of thing. But what are we doing?" said Mitchell, a frequent Whitmer critic.

"We're going ahead with shutting down restaurants that were complying with the provisions. I mean, at some point of time, when's it all stop?"

Whitmer has said the pause is necessary to stem rapidly rising infection rates around the state. 

The governor would not confirm Thursday whether she would extend the three-week "pause," but she said it may be "sadly possible" because of the volume of COVID-19 cases in Michigan.

Health officials have said the state's positivity rate has decreased from 14% Nov. 16 to around 13%, where the rate has hovered in recent days.

But Michigan Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon told lawmakers Thursday the current data is difficult to interpret because people's behavior changed over Thanksgiving, which could drive Michigan's numbers up in the coming weeks. 

But Robert Gordon, director of the state health department, told lawmakers Thursday the current virus data is difficult to interpret because people's behavior changed over Thanksgiving, which could drive the state's numbers up in the near future. 

Michigan reported 6,955 additional cases and 81 deaths related to COVID-19 on Wednesday, bringing the state's total number of cases to 373,197 and the number of COVID-related deaths to 9,405. 

Staff writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.

mburke@detroitnews.com

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