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‘There is a battle going on for the soul of the Republican Party,’ says Rep. Charlie Dent

Republican Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania says Congress is going to be “a lot worse off” without Sen. Jeff Flake, who announced on Tuesday that he wouldn’t seek re-election due to the current political climate. Dent, who has also said he won’t run again in 2018, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the need for lawmakers to act as a check on the president, plus the outlook for tax reform.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The very public split between President Trump and some members of his own party has been led by Republican lawmakers who are not seeking reelection, among them, Charlie Dent, congressman from Pennsylvania, now serving his seventh term in the House. He's a co-chair of the moderate Tuesday Group and member of the Appropriations Committee.

    We spoke a short time ago.

    And I began by asking if he agrees with Senator Jeff Flake that President Trump is, among other things — quote — "untruthful and reckless."

  • Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa..:

    Many of us have been critical of the president in terms of his tone and his temperament.

    We, as members of Congress, have spent far too much time trying to answer questions about the tweet of the moment. Sometimes, they're inappropriate. Sometimes, they're perhaps offensive. Sometimes, they're unimportant.

    But because we are doing that, we are distracted from doing the people's business. And I think Jeff Flake is on point. And I have said to my colleagues it's important that people like Senator Flake, myself, and Bob Corker speak up, that we should bring voice to some of these issues.

    And when we agree with the president, we shouldn't be afraid to say so. And when we disagree with him, we should act as a check. And if the president does something that's off the rails, then we need to call him out and not apologize for it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, are your fellow Republicans afraid to speak up, some of them? Because, at one point, Senator Flake said yesterday, we can't be complicit in standing by a president when we don't agree with what he's doing.

  • Rep. Charlie Dent:

    Well, look, I have encouraged my colleagues to speak up, to say what they — to say publicly what they say privately.

    And I'm — look, I'm not here to see seek redemption. I didn't support the president during the campaign, and for a lot of reasons I have stated over that time period. And I think it's important that my colleagues stand up.

    And we should exercise our Article I authorities. We are the Congress of the United States. We have to reassert ourselves. As Republicans, we complained quite a bit, justifiably, when President Obama overreached, and we talked about Congress being trampled.

    And, at this time, it's even more important that we stand up now because at times the president has made disparaging comments about the media, about judges. And I think it's important that we defend these institutions that are critical to our democratic values. Democrat with a small D, I'm talking about here. It's important that we protect these institutions and let the president know when we disagree with him.

    Those are the types of things that often get said about the press and the media and the judges in authoritarian countries. We don't do that here in the United States, and we have to be better.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Congressman, how widely held are the views that Senator Flake and you hold to one degree or another among Republicans?

  • Rep. Charlie Dent:

    Oh, I think that many of my colleagues share our view about what's happening at the White House.

    And let me — let me qualify it this way. I expect a certain amount of dysfunction in government. You know, we — our — we have a separation of powers, checks and balances, and, sometimes, you know, we can laugh at ourselves in terms of what happens in Congress in a democratic body.

    But, you know, I have often said, you know, at the White House, they seem to have taken the fun out of dysfunction. It's very difficult for us at times to deal with some of these issues. I don't like having to answer questions about Miss Universe's weight, for example, or crowd size, or, you know, accusations that President Obama spied on Donald Trump or his campaign.

    We don't like to have to answer these questions that we know are either unimportant or offensive or perhaps untrue.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you still consider yourself a Republican?

  • Rep. Charlie Dent:


    I'm a member of the party, a proud member of the party of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. And I believe it's — that we have an obligation as Republican members of Congress to stand up for this party of individual liberty that believes in a strong national defense and limited role of government, and we shouldn't shy away from that.

    But there is a battle going on for the soul of the Republican Party. I mean, I am concerned — and this is true of both parties right now, by the way, Judy — and there are these elements of isolationism, nativism, protectionism that rear their heads in both parties right now.

    And these are not attributes of a great nation. And so I think there's a political — I happen to believe there's a political realignment occurring in our country. The ground is shifting right under our feet, and no one knows how this is going to resolve itself.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, do you think President Trump is helping that along?

  • Rep. Charlie Dent:

    Well, it certainly seems that he's trying to remake the party, I think, in the image of himself or maybe Steve Bannon, and I don't think that is in our party's interest.

    I mean, the party shouldn't be about a man or an individual. It should be about a set of principles and ideals and ideas. That's what we should be about.

    And I do get concerned when I hear now — we used to have a litmus test, it seemed, for a long time. The battle in the Republican Party, there was a litmus test over — between the purists and the pragmatists. You know, were you pure enough?

    And I was always in the pragmatic camp, and so you would be defined as a RINO, Republican in name only, if you weren't pure enough on all the issues, if you weren't doctrinaire enough.

    But now that has all shifted. That paradigm has shifted. The new litmus test seems to be loyalty to the president, to a person. And that is troubling to me.

    And, Jeff Flake, by the way, is a very conservative member of the Senate, very conservative. So, really, his issues were not ideological. It was about his loyalty to the president. And I think that's unfortunate.

    We, as members of Congress, are elected by our constituents. Our job is to work with the president, not for the president. We are a separate branch of government, separate but equal. And I'm very concerned, you know, that there's too much talk here of separation of parties and not enough talk of separation of powers.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just quickly, finally, Congressman, prospects for tax reform?

  • Rep. Charlie Dent:

    I think the prospects of tax reform are reasonably good. Difficult issue. We're likely to pass a budget out of the House tomorrow.

    And then we're — and when we see the real tax reform plan, that's when the — that's when the work really begins. But I do think there's a chance to get some, at the very least, some business tax relief, hopefully partially offset, but I think there's a real possibility to get some reform.

    I'm not going to make any grand predictions about a massive comprehensive reform, but I think we will get something.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Congressman Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, we thank you very much.

  • Rep. Charlie Dent:

    Thank you, Judy. Great to be with you.

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