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‘We have an obligation to govern’: Republican Rep. Dent on ending the showdown

October 3, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
On the third day of the government shutdown, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said his party would only be open to legislative negotiation once the House GOP passes a clean funding bill. Congressional correspondent Kwame Holman reports. Gwen Ifill talks to Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., about his stance on ending the stalemate.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: The third day of the government shutdown was another day without progress on Capitol Hill, as a second major fiscal deadline drew near.

NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman begins our coverage.

PRESIDENT PRESIDENT OBAMA: So, my simple message today is, call a vote. Call a vote.

KWAME HOLMAN: The president used a stop today at a Maryland construction firm to blame the shutdown squarely on House Speaker John Boehner. And he challenged the speaker to bring up a government funding bill with no partisan strings attached.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: The only thing that is keeping the government shut down, the only thing preventing people from going back to work, and basic research starting back up, and farmers and small business owners getting their loans, the only thing that’s preventing all that from happening, right now, today, in the next five minutes, is that Speaker John Boehner won’t even let the bill get a yes-or-no vote, because he doesn’t want to anger the extremists in his party.

KWAME HOLMAN: The speaker fired back in a statement, saying the president is taking a my-way-or- the-highway approach by rejecting any changes to the health care law.

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The long-distance exchange came after the president met face to face with Boehner and the other congressional leaders Wednesday evening. Afterward, the speaker summed up things this way.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio: We had a nice conversation, a light conversation, but, at some point, we have got to allow the process that our founders gave us to work out. I would hope that the president and my Democratic colleagues in the Senate would listen to the American people and sit down and have a serious discussion above resolving these differences.

KWAME HOLMAN: Today, the Senate’s Democratic majority leader, Harry Reid, said his side is ready for that serious discussion, but only after House Republicans give way on the spending bill.

SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev.: Open the government, and we will negotiate with you on anything you want to negotiate with. I outlined anything that he wanted to talk about. Discretionary spending, you want to talk about, health care, anything you want to talk about health care, that includes Obamacare, we will talk about anything. But open the government, get the debt ceiling out of here.

KWAME HOLMAN: As Reid suggested, the shutdown standoff already is merging, at least rhetorically, with the deadline two weeks off, when the government will hit its borrowing limit and could default on its debts. In a report today, the Treasury Department said the economic effects of a default have the potential to be catastrophic.

The president made clear again today that lifting the debt limit is not up for debate.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: There will be no negotiations over this.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

PRESIDENT OBAMA: The American people are not pawns in some political game. You don’t get to demand some ransom in exchange for keeping the government running. You don’t get to demand ransom in exchange for keeping the economy running.

KWAME HOLMAN: Through his spokesman, Boehner gave the assurance the country will not default, but also said any increase must include spending cuts and other provisions.

In the meantime, with the shutdown in its third day, House Republicans advanced smaller spending bills to fund veterans programs and salaries for National Guard members. Other measures passed last night would finance D.C. government operations, national parks and the National Institutes of Health.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor:

REP. ERIC CANTOR, R-Va.: We’re trying to find the things that we can agree on in common where there is a majority vote in both houses. Certainly, pediatric medical research, medical research for clinical trials is something, given the circumstances, that I think we ought to get done.  

KWAME HOLMAN: Democrats again dismissed the plan as nothing but a political gimmick, and the shutdown remained in place.

GWEN IFILL: So, with each side accusing the other of extremism, extortion and plain old political stubbornness, there are a lonely few still calling for some sort of compromise, among them, Pennsylvania Republican Charlie Dent, who joins us from the House now.

Welcome, Congressman.

So, you have called for a clean, unadorned budget bill to be passed, which is not what your leadership is talking about. Why are you calling for that?

REP. CHARLIE DENT, R-Penn.: Well, first, let me say very clearly, I, like many of my colleagues in the House on the Republican side of the aisle, have very serious objections to the health care law. I voted to repeal it, defund it, delay it. I have done everything but fricassee it.

But I do think, once we reached late in the day on Sunday, that it was imperative that we pass a clean funding bill to keep the government running. I thought, once we reached that final vote that dealt with the health benefits and the individual mandate, even though I support the policy, I felt at that point, had we sent that to the Senate, that would have guaranteed a government shutdown.

And that’s where I parted ways with some of my Republican colleagues. But, that said, I do believe it’s imperative that we do have a clean funding bill to fund the government. That was the intent of the Republican leadership all along, but obviously there were a few dozen folks in the House Republican Conference who weren’t prepared to vote for a clean bill, and that’s why we’re in the situation we’re in right now.

GWEN IFILL: And those same two dozen folks are saying that you would basically be caving in, giving up if you were to suddenly do what you’re suggesting. What are you saying to them?

CHARLIE DENT: Well, I would say absolutely not.

Again, it was the intent of the House Republican leadership to pass a clean continuing resolution to fund the government, and then to have a discussion with the administration and the Senate with respect to some of the health care law provisions that we found objectionable and other perhaps entitlement changes, the sequester, and have those discussions in the context of the debt ceiling, understanding that, at the end of this process, it’s unacceptable to not maintain the full faith and credit of the United States government.

Of course we’re going to have to raise the debt ceiling, but it was appropriate — I think it’s appropriate to have discussions, though, surrounding those — debt ceiling issue.

GWEN IFILL: What kind of reaction are you getting from your constituents from Lehigh Valley area, Pennsylvania?

CHARLIE DENT: Oh, most of my constituents, I think, share my view is that, while we have very serious concerns and misgivings regarding the health care law, that we didn’t want to shut the government down to make that particular point.

So I think many of my constituents do agree with me that this health care law has all sorts of problems, and many of them would like to see it repealed or replaced or changed or fixed, but they also understand that we have an obligation to govern, that we have to fund the government, that, as a member of Congress, I have an affirmative obligation to govern, to get certain things done.

I’m a member of the Appropriations Committee. I’ll tell you, I always say that I’m on the one committee that has to actually get something done every year. We have to fund the government. And if we fail in that very basic responsibility, the American public loses trust in the institution of government and in its leaders. And it’s just a simply unacceptable place to be.

GWEN IFILL: Well, the speaker is apparently telling members he has no intention of not getting the debt ceiling limit raised, and that would be kind of a breakthrough at this point.

But what are the people — what are you hearing within your caucus about the willingness to deal on just that — that looming problem?

CHARLIE DENT: Well, I just want to say, too, some of us are working in a very bipartisan manner. I’m working very closely with a good friend, Representative Ron Kind, a Democrat from Wisconsin.

He and I and a like-minded group of Republicans and Democrats offered a suggestion today to break the logjam, at least on the government funding piece. What we said, well, why don’t repeal the medical device tax, fund the government for six months at the sequestered level as requested by the Republicans, and pay for the repeal of the medical device tax, something the Democrats want, through a pension smoothing or stabilization mechanism?

I thought that was a win-win-win for everybody.

GWEN IFILL: And how was that received?

CHARLIE DENT: Well, I’ll tell you, among the Republicans and the Democrats, it will not be well received on the far left, because those folks say, well, we don’t want to make any changes to the health care law, and the folks on the extreme right will say, well, anything short of a defund or a delay is unacceptable.

And what we’re saying is, this is incremental progress. The Democrats are acknowledging a defect with the law, this very onerous medical device tax. And Republicans are going to be able to get some incremental change. And the Democrats get a victory here, too, in that we would actually pay for it in a responsible way that I believe would be broadly embraced by members of both parties.

GWEN IFILL: You have been quoted as saying that there’s a lot of brinksmanship and showmanship going on. Would you say it’s on your side of the aisle or the other side of the aisle?

CHARLIE DENT: Well, look, there’s a lot of blame to go around. I think members of both parties are just — and the American public — are tired of the brinksmanship, tired of being taken to the edge.

And in this case, we have gone over it, at least with respect to the government shutdown. And so I do get very tired of it and frustrated. I think this whole government shutdown could have been averted had some cooler heads prevailed. The senator from Texas, with all due respect, he had raised a lot of expectations, I believe unrealistically…

GWEN IFILL: You’re talking about Senator Ted Cruz.

CHARLIE DENT: Yes. And so the House passed a bill to defund the health care law, Obamacare, and the senator was unable to deliver the votes, the votes to defund it.

And so — and I think we all knew that going in. And once that occurred, then we should have stepped back and said, OK, now let’s get the government funded and then we can continue to debate the deficiencies of the health care law — and there are many — on another day and another occasion, but outside the context of funding the government.

GWEN IFILL: So, let’s talk a little bit about what it would take to get cooler heads to prevail.

If you — as you say, Senator Cruz has urged people toward the brink, and there are members — there members of the House who enjoy being on the brink, or at least have not rejected being on the brink, what does it take to pull you back at this point?

CHARLIE DENT: Well, the reality of the House of Representatives is this. In the House Republican Conference, there are 232 members, and I believe somewhere between 180 to 200 on any given day are prepared to affirmatively govern this country and want to be part of whatever the solution is.

There are a few dozen who don’t share that same sense of governance. So, moving forward, I believe the House is going to have to form bipartisan coalitions to enact must-pass pieces of legislation. We saw that this year with the fiscal cliff, hurricane relief in Sandy. And, by the way, my district was hit hard by Sandy. And I was out of power, as were 500,000 of my constituents — Violence Against Women Act.

It will happen again on the — it happened with the no budget, no pay, when we first extended the debt ceiling, where 200 Republicans and the balance were Democrats.

GWEN IFILL: But, in this case, not with the majority of the majority party, as — the Hastert rule, as they call it.

CHARLIE DENT: Well, I would hope there would be a majority of the majority, but, again, we are going to have to fund the government, and we are going to have to fund it with as many Republican votes as we can, and same when we get to the debt ceiling.

We’re going to have to — we’re going to need a bipartisan coalition. And I’m hoping that there will be a strong support from both parties for both of these measures when we get to that — when we get to that final vote. And that’s the one that really matters.

(CROSSTALK)

GWEN IFILL: Pennsylvania Republican Charlie Dent, thank you so much for joining us.

CHARLIE DENT: Hey. Thank you so much for having me.