Center stage for the middle ground
Rep. Charlie Dent of Allentown says moderates were misled by GOP leaders.
WASHINGTON - In the middle of the ugly feud that consumed Washington these past weeks, Rep. Charlie Dent of Allentown had a message for Republicans who fretted that straying from the GOP hard-liners would invite primary challenges.
"Here's my advice to you: go out and beat 'em," Dent recalled telling fellow Republicans at a closed meeting.
"Don't go hide under the table, don't go cower under the table," he elaborated in an Inquirer interview Friday, his voice rising. "I can't take the crying and the whining and the worrying."
Dent also derided what he called the party's self-appointed "chiefs of purity police." And he said he felt "misled" by House GOP leaders as they embarked on a strategy that brought on a 16-day government shutdown and pushed the country to the brink of exhausting its ability to borrow money to pay its bills.
As the fiasco dragged on, Dent, a fifth-term congressman whose district begins just north of Montgomery County and runs through the Lehigh Valley, emerged as one of the few go-to voices of the Republican middle.
He was mobbed by reporters and profiled on the front page of the New York Times. He spoke up in Republican meetings, tried to rally bipartisan support for a compromise bill, and became a cable-news staple, hammering tea party lawmakers who had insisted on starting a fight without, in his view, a realistic path to victory.
"I'm surprised that by simply stating the obvious, I've become momentarily famous," he said.
Speaking by phone, he gave the assessment of one man who tried to put out fires while some of his colleagues threw bombs.
As one of the House's few moderates, he had harsh words all around. He called President Obama "disengaged" and ripped a "compliant media" that he said sold Obama's talking points on the debt fight.
Dent said he and other Republicans from moderate districts around Philadelphia felt they had been led astray. The locals had believed House leaders would avert a shutdown by allowing a last-minute vote on a so-called "clean" bill to fund the government without any GOP demands attached.
"There are many members of the Republican conference who felt misled because we all believed that there would be a vote on a clean continuing resolution," either on Sept. 30 or early Oct. 1, the day the government ran out of spending authority, Dent said.
A handful of the moderates had vowed to support that step, which could have passed with Democratic support. But the vote never came, as conservatives kept pushing for changes to the Affordable Care Act - Obama's health law - that the president would never accept.
Dent thought Republican leaders had been clear that they didn't support a shutdown or default on U.S. debt. When they didn't allow a vote on a Senate-passed bill that would have kept the government open, Dent said, "That's what kind of got me more than anything."
Reps. Mike Fitzpatrick, Jim Gerlach, and Pat Meehan of Pennsylvania and Frank LoBiondo and Jon Runyan of New Jersey - all from middle-of-the-road districts around Philadelphia - had also supported the "clean" bill to avoid a shutdown.
Dent was the first and most vocal to break ranks, casting a vote against the doomed GOP plan on the eve of the shutdown. But unlike the hard-line conservatives who banded together, he couldn't rally others to join him that night. Only one other Republican moderate, Peter King of New York, voted with him.
Cheerful and earnest, Dent chairs the centrist Tuesday Group and usually looks for compromise. He tried to work with Democrats to eliminate a small slice of the health law - the medical-device tax - that members of both parties have criticized.
But he hasn't minced words as some Republicans have pushed unyielding agendas that rouse the right but may hurt with critical swing voters.
"Some of those who advocate for these poorly-thought-out tactics have also appointed themselves as the chiefs of purity police," Dent said, "and a lot of us are getting pretty tired of it."
Like other Republicans, he doesn't want Obamacare: "Defund it, repeal it, delay it, fry it, shish-kabob it - everything but fricassee."
But as long as Obama is in the White House, Dent said, Republicans should realize that his signature law isn't going anywhere.
"All of our members must embrace realistic expectations about what can be accomplished in divided government," Dent said. "Our leadership in particular must do a better job of managing expectations."
Instead of celebrating when Democrats agreed to the spending levels Republicans preferred and then turning their focus to Obamacare's faltering roll-out, the GOP started a fight and ended up with a black eye, he said.
"This is a terrible case of political malpractice."
Compared to other local lawmakers, Dent represents a relatively safe district. But the GOP's plunging poll numbers could threaten the likes of Fitzpatrick, Runyan, and LoBiondo, and the Republican margin in the House.
Despite widespread anger among the Republican establishment, it's unclear whether the party's approach will change as more fiscal fights loom. Some, including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, have hinted that they won't relent.
To them, Obama's health law is a threat to the economy and individual health care and must be defeated, using any tactic available. Conservative activists remain committed to that goal and have urged Republicans to hold firm on spending and taxes.
Dent doesn't want to retreat on those issues. But he argues that only a few dozen House Republicans want an "all-or-nothing approach."
But that group is so insistent that they have steered the GOP - leading to questions of why more pragmatic lawmakers, if there are as many as Dent claims, don't push back just as hard.
"I believe lessons have been learned," he said.
Others seem less sure.
With new deadlines looming in January and February, pragmatists' resolve - and their willingness to flex their muscle - may soon be tested again.