Minnesota Democratic congressman Dean Phillips has thrust himself into the ongoing negotiations in Washington over a federal COVID-19 stimulus package, working with a group of lawmakers in both chambers to craft their own plan in the absence of a final deal from leaders.

Members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of 50 lawmakers, say they've kept momentum going for a deal by proposing alternatives, including a $908 billion package they split into two parts this week to make passage easier in a divided Congress.

But Phillips' work as part of the group has put the freshman from Minnesota's suburban Third District in an awkward position. At times he's had to defend his conservative colleagues in the caucus on national TV, while privately putting the pressure on his own Democratic leadership in the House to strike a deal.

In an hourlong meeting just before Thanksgiving, Phillips said he told House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that his support for her in a leadership vote on Jan. 3 will depend on getting a deal by then.

"Most people who meet with the speaker and discuss support for her ask for a committee assignment ... or for personal favors," Phillips said. "[My request] was pretty simple and it, frankly, has repercussions to me and others and they have already started."

Without a deal, Phillips said, he will cast his ballot for someone else for speaker, though he declined to say whom he might support. A request for comment from Pelosi's office was not returned

Since their conversation, Phillips said he's been flooded with calls from other members of Congress and the leaders of large organizations from across the country. Pelosi is expected to hold onto her gavel, but every vote counts with the tighter House margins carved by the 2020 election.

'Sick of the blame game'

Phillips, who beat incumbent Republican Erik Paulsen in 2018, won re-election on Nov. 3 with nearly 56% of the vote. But he returns to Washington next year for a second term as frustrated as ever with the way Congress operates.

In October, Phillips voted against the $2.2 trillion Heroes Act 2.0 in the House, joining 17 other Democrats in breaking with his party. He said he voted against the bill because it had no chance of passing the Senate or being signed by President Donald Trump.

"It was a messaging bill," he said. "It was designed to show the country that the House passed something and the Senate would let it sit and it's all the Senate's fault. I'm sick of the blame game."

Since this summer, Phillips said he's been working with a breakaway group of five members within the Problem Solvers Caucus — two other Democrats and three Republicans — on pieces of their $908 billion proposal, which was unveiled two weeks ago.

He calls it their "Tiger Team," a military term first used by former congressman Tim Walz, who is now governor.

This week, the caucus pitched splitting the bill into two parts: a $748 billion bill to extend unemployment benefits and supplemental funding, and a $160 billion piece that would infuse funding to state and local governments — which Democrats want — and include a legal liability protection provision for nonprofit organizations and businesses that is favored by Republicans.

Democrats including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders pushed back on the deal for not including $1,200 stimulus checks, among other provisions. But others have said their efforts showed the public frustration from members of both parties needed to help soften leaders' hard-lined approach.

Leaders in Congress this week said they're closing in on a $908 billion plan to extend aid to businesses and individuals.

"Two weeks ago, every expert on the Hill who writes for Politico or Roll Call said [a deal] wasn't possible," said U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, a Republican from South Dakota who has worked closely with Phillips in the caucus. "That is not a coincidence. That is not an accident. We would not be here without the Problem Solvers Caucus."

Phillips' alliance with Republicans such as Johnson has raised eyebrows at a time when some in the GOP haven't yet acknowledged President-elect Joe Biden's victory in November. On a recent CNN appearance, Phillips was grilled by anchor Chris Cuomo when Johnson backed out of the program.

Phillips said he's "appalled" by Republicans who refuse to recognize the election results, but he defended his Problem Solvers colleagues.

"I trust my Republican colleagues on our 'Tiger Team' as much as anyone in Congress," he said. "It was a little bit of an epiphany that, with a little bit of trust and friendship, we can do these things."

Time is running short. Congress hopes to meet a Friday deadline to send a COVID-19 relief bill and government funding package to Trump. Talks have stalled on relief packages before, and there's no guarantee they'll get the work done in time. If Congress stalls beyond the holidays, millions of Americans will face losing unemployment benefits.

Phillips, however, said he remains hopeful that a deal will come together in time.

"Congress is afforded this once-in-a-generation opportunity to help people right now," he said. "My message to the speaker was not just, 'This was my condition.' It was, 'I'm here to help, we're here to help. I want to be a participant in finding a solution.' "

Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042

Twitter: @bbierschbach