Why 5 area Republicans are shifting in shutdown

Rep. Jim Gerlach
Rep. Jim Gerlach
Posted: October 04, 2013

Let the record show that five Republicans representing House districts in the Philadelphia region were among the first to crack during the great federal government shutdown drama of 2013.

The mutiny of congressmen from competitive districts exposed the fault lines in the House GOP caucus - between tea-party hard-liners seeking to block an omnibus spending bill to undo or stall President Obama's signature health-care overhaul, and those who, in the words of U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent of the Lehigh Valley, believe it is "time to govern."

Their expressed willingness to support a spending bill without the anti-Obamacare provisions offers a path for their party to avoid potential political damage of a prolonged shutdown, GOP strategists said.

Several of their constituents interviewed Wednesday, even those troubled by the health-care law, expressed support for efforts to end the impasse. "It's about time somebody started thinking like regular people," said Maxine Veasey of Yeadon, Delaware County.

And a veteran of the last federal shutdown said those who represent "swing constituencies" need to be heard.

"It was a very frustrating experience," recalled former Republican Rep. Phil English, who was in his first year representing an Erie-based district during the last shutdown, in 1995.

There were differences then, English said. For one thing, he said, President Bill Clinton was actively engaged in talks with the House GOP majority, while President Obama and the Democrats who control the Senate insist any effort to undercut Obamacare be removed from the equation.

And the last shutdown was driven largely by the GOP leadership, including then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, while this one stems from a group of committed conservatives among the rank and file.

"The folks who drive the extreme positions, in both parties' caucuses, are not the ones who have their ears to the ground in swing districts," English, now a Washington lawyer, said. "One problem with Congress now is that you just don't have that many people who represent swing constituencies anymore."

In addition to Dent, the mutineers are GOP Reps. Patrick Meehan, Jim Gerlach, and Mike Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, as well as Jon Runyan of South Jersey. Republican Frank LoBiondo, whose district is along the Shore, has said he is open to the idea of a "clean" spending bill that doesn't include anti-Obamacare provisions.

Several Republicans interviewed Wednesday on Meehan's Delaware County turf said they supported a deal that would end the shutdown, even if it allows Obamacare to go forward.

"I'm a big fan of Patrick Meehan," said Jennifer Helton of Boothwyn. "I definitely think that if he can end it [the shutdown], then he should by all means." She said she is "a little torn" about Obamacare but believes on balance in extending access to health care to more people.

Others were simply frustrated by the shutdown and glad their congressman was trying to end it. "I think this is a great idea," Megan Peterson of Aston said.

Veasey, too, applauded Meehan for working to end the shutdown, saying, "It's time for it to stop. It never should have happened in the first place."

But Jim Finnegan, of Wallingford said he can't support any deal that funds the Affordable Care Act. "I believe that's going to hurt the kids," he said. "This Obama, I think he's a socialist."

To some frustrated Democrats, the centrists now being celebrated have tried to have it both ways, voting for earlier budget versions that would have hit Obamacare but now changing their minds under pressure.

In Bucks County's Eighth District, Fitzpatrick faces an added pressure - from the tea party.

Anastasia Przybylski, cofounder of the Doylestown-based Kitchen Table Patriots, said Fitzpatrick ran on a vow to seek Obamacare's repeal, and "he needs to fulfill his promises. He needs to stick with the Republicans that are showing leadership."

Przybylski said she does not know if Fitzpatrick's move to the middle will inspire a conservative primary challenger in 2014 or even a third-party candidate, but said that she hears frustration from members of her group and other tea party members.

"From the chatter I hear, people are so fed up with the Republican establishment not listening to the base," she said. "People are just fed up and want to abandon altogether. This is not just a Fitzpatrick problem. This is a Republican problem in general. The Republican Party has a serious problem on their hands."

But another tea party leader took a longer-term view. Don Adams of the Independence Hall Tea Party Association said it was time to relent on the shutdown while pressing the fight to delay the individual-mandate aspect of Obamacare and defund subsidies for federal employees in discussions over the debt limit later this month.

As long as a majority of House Republicans can support that approach, Adams said, "now it is time to move on to the next phase of the strategy."

One veteran Pennsylvania-based GOP strategist, Charlie Gerow, said the shutdown drama has worked against his party in another way - by overshadowing a story Republicans want told, about the glitches in the rollout of major elements of Obamacare this week.

"Politics are always about the story, and the story should be about how discombobulated Obamacare is instead of the shutdown of the federal government," Gerow said. "Is the cooler head in the party going to be the one who says 'Let's let Obamacare implode,' and that will be the narrative going into the 2014 election?"





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