"Ted Cruz failed": Dissident GOP Rep. Charlie Dent talks to Salon

House GOPer explains his support for clean bill to reopen government -- and the mess his party now finds itself in

Published October 8, 2013 5:31PM (EDT)

Charlie Dent    (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Charlie Dent (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Few in Congress have seen their profile raised as far or as fast over the past several days as Charlie Dent, the Pennsylvania Republican who bucked GOP leadership in the final hours before the government shutdown, and was among the first in his party to publicly urge a “clean CR” – funding the government at GOP-favored numbers without other conditions like amending or ending Obamacare.

In a Monday afternoon interview, Dent told Salon that “most Republicans” aren’t hostage-takers, and that Ted Cruz had played a pivotal role in the House but proved “unable to deliver” in the Senate. Dent called debt default “potentially catastrophic,” but defended using the debt ceiling to push for budget cuts. Dent said he could vote for a clean debt ceiling increase once “the bewitching hour” arrives October 17, and that Speaker Boehner “has been very clear with me and others that he’s not going to let this country default on its debt.” A condensed version of our conversation follows.

You were one of the few [Republicans] to vote against the last Republican continuing resolution. Based on what’s happened over the past week, were you right to disagree with that strategy leading into the shutdown?

Yes… The House Republican leadership always wanted to pass a clean continuing resolution and then have a debate in the context of the debt ceiling…[But] Senator Cruz, I should say, was trying to advance this - defund the healthcare law as part of the continuing resolution.  I raised concerns about it at the time over the summer…

My fear was… that tactic could lead to a government shutdown, and you would not end up defunding the healthcare law… And that’s where we are today. The government is shut down, and the healthcare law is still humming.

And by the way, I support the [GOP] policy. I voted against the healthcare law. I voted against it, I voted to repeal it, I vote to delay it, I voted to defund it. I’ve done everything but fricassee the healthcare law. So the bottom line is, we’re having a debate about our tactics, not the substance of the issue.

But so that’s been my concern all along: The tactic wouldn’t be successful. It wasn’t successful. Senator Cruz failed to deliver the votes in the Senate. The bottom line is that Senator Cruz’s tactic was not successful. He was unable to deliver. He failed to get the votes…

On September 30th…I encouraged our leadership to pass a clean continuing resolution.  They ignored my advice…Sometime that night they decided not to do the clean continuing resolution, and now here we are where we are.

How much sway would you say Senator Cruz has within the House Republican Caucus?

Not that much. Look, Senator Cruz, obviously he has a band of followers. I mean I don’t think it’s that many, but apparently enough to make it difficult for the Republicans, for we the Republicans, to find 218 votes to pass a clean bill…

There are between 180 to 200 House members of the [232-member] House Republican conference who have an affirmative sense of governance, that they understand we have responsibilities and obligations and have to get certain things done…There are a few dozen that do not share that same sense of governance.

And I’ve offered, and I’ve said to our leadership and elsewhere that it’s incumbent upon us to find a bipartisan governing coalition in the house to enact must-pass pieces of legislation. Just this year we saw the fiscal cliff, we saw the Hurricane Sandy [relief] bill, the Violence Against Women Act … On the continuing resolution, and the debt ceiling there will likely need to be a similar bipartisan coalition…

How many Republicans in the House right now do you think would vote for a clean CR if it came up for a vote?

I don’t know. But I believe there would be a bipartisan majority in the house to pass such a bill. The Washington Post, I believe, has been keeping track of Republican members who said they would vote for a clean continuing resolution. I think they said it was 20 or 21…I believe there are several more, many more who privately said they would likely vote for a clean CR but have not said so publicly.

You mean they’ve said that to you?

Well, I’ve talked to a few who said they would vote a clean bill but they have not said so publicly.

So should the speaker bring up a clean bill for a vote?

Well I have urged our Republican conference that we should vote on a clean CR, and I have urged our leadership that we should do that, and I know that was what our leadership always intended to do or wanted to do from the beginning. Until it got pushed into this particular tactic by Senator Cruz and a small minority of House Republicans.

Why do you think the speaker now isn’t bringing up a clean CR?

What the speaker now wants [is] to conflate the continuing resolution and the debt ceiling into one agreement. I would prefer that we deal with a government shutdown independent of that. But I also recognize that as time drags on, that there will be a certain inevitability to the conflation of these two issues.

Do you think that strengthens or weakens leverage for the Republicans?

I think our negotiating position…is weakened because the government is shut down…And it’s also difficult too because we’ve got a President of the United States who seems to be AWOL, disconnected and behaving as a spectator in this process by saying he will not negotiate. I think the president is adopting an untenable position and he’s going to have to get off of that at some point.

And so if the Democrats brought a discharge petition to force a clean CR to the floor, would you sign that?

No…Procedurally, you really couldn’t get to it until October 28 and I certainly hope by then we have at least a resolution.

I’ve offered a bipartisan resolution with Rep. Ron Kind… this is a winning compromise for everyone. Republicans win because the government is funded at the level that we insisted on, and we repeal the medical device tax…Democrats win because many of them want to repeal the medical device tax and - but most importantly, they want to pay for the repeal, and so the pay-for that we have developed is one that would enjoy broad bipartisan agreement. It deals with a pension smoothing mechanism…For those on the Right who are concerned, I would say incremental progress is better than no progress at all.

You mentioned the debt ceiling. Your colleague Congressman Yoho said that he will not vote to raise the debt ceiling, and that going past the debt ceiling “would bring stability to the world markets,” and also that “our credit rating would do better…” What’s your view of that?

Well, I disagree [laughs]. I disagree. Look, defaulting on this nation’s obligations, defaulting on our debt, you know, putting at risk the full faith and credit of the United States is simply unacceptable, and would lead to greater instability in the marketplace, and could lead to a potentially catastrophic economic event. So I disagree with whatever [laughs] that statement was, which, I would have a hard time - well I just don’t agree with it. It’s just not, it’s just, I completely disagree with it.

So if the Republican position is that the debt ceiling should be raised, and the Democratic position is that the debt ceiling should be raised, then why does that need to be an aspect of a negotiation?

Well because – well, look, I know you’re with Salon, but I mean I want you to try to be as fair and balanced as you can on this issue…I believe actually, according to Congressional Research Service, [Congress] voted 53 times from 1978 [to] 2013 to change the debt ceiling…Just under half were…stand-alone, no strings attached right…It’s unacceptable to default on our debt, we all get that. But for the president to pretend that there has never been a negotiation in connection with the debt ceiling runs counter to the truth and to the facts, and he should be called out with that…

He must negotiate. I mean, we all talk about compromise, but you can’t compromise with someone who refuses to negotiate or speak with you. So I think it’s OK to have this conversation, and I hope it does lead to some kind of a broader fiscal reform…I mean certainly the markets will react horribly to a default. But at the same time those people who are also watching those markets very carefully recognize that the unsustainability of America’s fiscal trajectory is going to lead to real economic turbulence over time, I mean so, over the long term. So I think we have to - I think it’s OK – look, I’m not expecting to have any Grand Bargain between now and October 17th…But maybe we can make a down payment.

Maybe we can talk about how we can rebalance the sequester and move some of the spending cuts on the discretionary programs onto the mandatory programs. And perhaps maybe deal with an item or two that the president has recommended in terms of mandatory reforms - that you’d think he’d support, if he was only willing to negotiate. [Laughs]

Do you consider raising the debt ceiling a concession to Democrats?

Uh, no, I don’t. But I do think it’s – I believe it’s something – I know it’s inevitably going – inevitably going to happen, and it will be done in a bipartisan manner in the House. And so there’s an inevitability to it. But I don’t think it’s a concession. But I do think and strongly believe it’s appropriate to have a debate about what drives the long-term debt in connection with the debt ceiling increase. And I would think the president would welcome that discussion…But apparently he’d rather ignore those problems through long-term.

So should Democrats be concerned that Republicans potentially will not allow the debt ceiling to go up if Democrats do not make concessions?

No. I would not, I would not be that concerned, because the speaker has been very clear with me and others that he’s not going to let this country default on its debt.

So if it’s October 16 and the Democrats have not made concessions on these issues, then what do you expect to happen?

I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s hard to predict what’s going to happen here from one minute to the next…So I don’t what’s going to – I don’t know. I do believe that – look, I talk to enough of the Democrats, they want to try to rebalance the sequester, they want to move the cuts off the discretionary programs like many of the Republicans do as well, and put them onto the mandatory programs. Not all of them, but some of these cuts, and so I think there’s some area, there’s some potential for agreement.

Can you imagine yourself voting for a clean debt ceiling increase?

Yes. Yes I could. I mean if we come to the bewitching hour on the 17th, and the country’s about to under the – you know, and the markets start getting real jittery and there’s real concern about a default, then of course.

And how many of your colleagues would you have with you on that?

You’d have to ask them.

Do you –

But I do believe many feel as I do that defaulting on our nation’s obligations is unacceptable, under any circumstances. I believe most of my colleagues on the House side believe that. Our hope is to try to get some broader reforms tied to this -that’s my hope too. But again, you’re asking a hypothetical question, well what if there is no agreement? Well then at the very least I suspect you would see a short-term debt ceiling increase that could be clean. A short term, I don’t know for how long – a couple weeks, a month. Until we complete a broader, a better negotiation.

So do you believe that the speaker would bring up a clean debt ceiling increase if that was what it took to avert a default?

Well, you know, do I believe – You’d have to ask the speaker what he’s going to bring up. I can’t - I don’t – I don’t bring up bills. I don’t know what he’s going to bring up.

Do you think he faces a risk of losing his position if he brings up a clean CR or a clean debt ceiling bill?

No. I mean some members won’t like it, but I don’t believe it puts his position at risk.

And the assessment that the Treasury Dept put out that said that the result of breaking through the debt ceiling could be more severe than anything since the Great Depression, do you agree with that assessment?

Well, I believe a default would certainly be extraordinarily disruptive and potentially catastrophic. I haven’t looked at the report you just mentioned but it could be potentially catastrophic.

And when the White House or Democrats accuse Republicans of hostage-taking on the debt ceiling, is that a fair characterization?

Uh, look. No. I - do I – I think they may be – no. For most Republicans, absolutely not. There may be – there are some, I suspect, on our side, you know, who - you know who - that kind of an analogy may be more appropriate for. But for the overwhelming majority of the House Republicans, nobody here - nobody here believes that we need to burn down Washington in order to save it.

So who would be the ones then that are taking hostages?

Look, we’re getting kind of redundant here now Josh. I’ve said to you, there are between 180 and 200 members of the House Republican conference on any given day who have an affirmative sense of governance, OK? They want to get things done for the good of the country, realize that we have very real governing responsibilities and take them seriously. As I’ve said, there are a few dozen members who don’t share that sense of governance. I mean you can go out there and try to identify the folks if you want.  I’m not going to call anybody out by name - it’s not my role to do that. But I just have to accept the reality that in [order] to pass or enact these must-pass pieces of legislation, we’re going to have to establish bipartisan coalitions to do so…

I’m not here to assign blame to anyone in particular, but there’s going to be plenty of blame to go around if we fail miserably.

As a co-chair of The Tuesday Group, what do you think is happening to the leverage of moderate or center-right Republicans within the party?

I believe the speaker has done his best over the years to try to balance all of these competing interests. But lately I think that, you know, he’s kind of been pushed in a direction he really didn’t want to go. And my job in part is to help bring him back, bring him back to - I think to a better place. I think he would be very candid with you: he didn’t want to be in this position in the first place.

By Josh Eidelson

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