Rep. Dent: Congress Has An Obligation To Fund Government

Melissa Block speaks with Republican Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania on ways to resolve the government shutdown.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

There were just a handful of moderate House Republicans who bucked the party leadership and voted against the House spending bill last night. One of them is Charlie Dent, who represents Pennsylvania's 15th District, between Harrisburg and Allentown. He co-chairs a self-described group of center-right House Republicans known as the Tuesday Group. Congressman Dent, welcome to the program.

REPRESENTATIVE CHARLIE DENT: Thanks for having me, Melissa.

BLOCK: And why did you vote no last night?

DENT: Well, the House, as you know, has launched a few legislative actions, one to defund the health care law. It was sent over to the Senate along with the continuing appropriations bill, the spending bill.

BLOCK: Right. And you voted yes on that one.

DENT: Correct. The Senate rejected it and sent it back fairly clean. The same thing happened a few days later with the medical device tax and a delay of the law by one year. I supported that as well. The medical device tax is a huge problem in my congressional district. I have a lot of jobs related to that industry, and it's quite problematic. We did that on Saturday night.

But at the end of the day, I knew come September 30th, if the Senate was not going to agree to some of the health-care-related provisions that were in the spending bill that, at some point, we're going to have to fund the government. I believe, as a member of Congress, I have a fundamental obligation, an affirmative obligation to govern the country.

And the most basic fundamental responsibility I have is to make sure that we pass budgets and that the government is funded and functioning. And if we fail in that particular task, that, I think, just really unsettles the American public, creates greater uncertainty and certainly feeds the cynicism that many people feel towards our government.

BLOCK: So even though you had voted twice earlier with the Republican leadership for the spending bill that defunded the health care law or delayed it for one year, last night, you said, OK, enough's enough. I'm voting no.

DENT: Well, because at that hour, I felt that, you know, sending over a bill to the Senate that I knew they were going to reject immediately was just, at that point, unhelpful. Even though I agreed with the substance of what was in the bill, certainly I agree with delaying the individual mandate and the so-called Vitter language, I'm supportive of that. But I knew, at this point, it really wasn't about the substance of that bill. It was really more a matter of making sure the government did not shut down.

BLOCK: Well, Congressman Dent, now that the government has gone into shutdown, what's your message to the Republican leadership?

DENT: Well, I still say to our leadership that we have to find a solution. We're going to need a bipartisan solution. People are going to have to start talking with each other. But in the meantime, I still think we should try to pass a clean continuing resolution to get us beyond this stalemate and get people back to work as quickly as possible. Let the American people know we can govern and that we want to make sure that the services that had been promised will be rendered.

BLOCK: If Speaker Boehner were to allow that clean spending bill that you're talking about, without provisions on the Affordable Care Act, if he were to allow that to be put to a vote in the House, any question for you that that would pass?

DENT: Oh, it would pass.

BLOCK: It would pass, no question.

DENT: There are 218 votes to pass a clean continuing resolution or a short-term government funding bill. There are clearly 218 votes. There'll be plenty of Republicans and lots of Democrats who will vote to fund the government.

BLOCK: Congressman Dent, do you think that the speaker of the House, John Boehner, is effectively being held hostage by the most conservative wing of your party, by the Tea Party wing?

DENT: Well, I've often said, you know, there are 232 House Republican members. And there are probably somewhere between, you know, 180 to 200 on a given day, you know, who I would call the, you know, the regular governing wing of the party. And there are a few dozen, you know, who don't have that same sense of governance. And that's the reality.

And so the speaker on this issue and as he had to do on many other issues, he's going to have to find a coalition of Republicans with a good sense of governance as well as Democrats to help pass major must-pass pieces of legislation to make sure we get things done.

BLOCK: Does it represent a failure of Speaker Boehner's leadership, do you think, that that has fallen apart?

DENT: No, I don't blame the speaker at all for that. I don't. I mean, every member is elected in their own districts. And these - and many of these members feel they are representing their constituencies, and they feel that they're carrying out and representing their constituencies as they would like to be represented in Washington. And I don't know that the speaker has the ability to, you know, to influence those members as much as I might like. So I don't really blame the speaker on that. He's - I think, you know, it's fair to say he's probably pretty frustrated.

BLOCK: But if the legislation that's emerging is being dictated by the demands of this small, as you say, vocal couple of dozen members of the House as opposed to forging a coalition, a bipartisan coalition, whose fault is that?

DENT: Well, I'll tell you what. That's one reason I was pushing back, because I don't want to reward bad behavior. I want to make sure that we can - that there are plenty of members in the House Republican conference who feel as I do that we have this responsibility, this affirmative obligation to govern, and that we ought to get on with it.

BLOCK: If the numbers are what you say, how frustrating is it for you and your fellow Republicans who would want to see a clean spending bill passed to end the government shutdown? How frustrating is it for you to be stymied by a small minority of Republicans in the House?

DENT: It's extremely frustrating. And I wish - again, I'm prevailing upon the Republican leadership to bring up the clean continuing resolution so we can pass it, get the government reopened.

And we're going to continue to have debates on the health care law. As I mentioned to you a few moments ago, there are many problems with this health care law that we are going to have to address at some point. Particularly as the implementation continues to unfold, we are going to discover all sorts of problems. I mean, if anybody thinks that this law is just going to be enacted and it's going to just kind of move along swimmingly, I think they're also being delusional.

BLOCK: Congressman Dent, thanks for your time.

DENT: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's Congressman Charlie Dent, Republican of Pennsylvania.

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BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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