A G.O.P. Moderate in the Middle … of a Jam

John Boehner

But now Mr. Dent is in the center of things as perhaps never before as the shutdown fight entered its second week. He is one of roughly two dozen House Republicans whose votes have become the subject of a fight with President Obama and Congressional Democrats, who are urging Speaker John A. Boehner to let the House vote on a budget bill without conditions. Mr. Boehner insists the votes aren’t there to approve such a measure, which could end the government shutdown.

Mr. Dent — who in a swing state has more to worry about from the shutdown than Republicans in solidly red districts in red states — begged to differ with his leadership.

“I believe the votes are there,” said Mr. Dent, who added that he would vote for a clean spending bill. “I believe that most Democrats will vote for it, and I believe there will be a lot of Republicans that will support it, as well.”

Though Libertarian-leaning House members have garnered much of the attention in Congress with their vocal complaining, challenges to the leadership and scorched-earth tactics, it is moderate Republicans like Mr. Dent, 53, who could end up deciding the fight if it reaches the point where both Republican and Democratic votes are required to settle key issues.

And Mr. Dent, whose square jaw, sandy hair and pale blue eyes make him look more like a local news anchor than a member of Congress, said he was ready to help should the opportunity arise.

“I’m a center-right member of Congress in a center-right district in a center-right country,” Mr. Dent said. “When you’re in this business of governing, sometimes you must step up and govern.”

Mr. Dent was one of just 22 Republicans who helped pass major legislation this year — to avert a fiscal showdown, to provide relief to victims of Hurricane Sandy and to pass the Violence Against Women Act — in the face of overwhelming opposition within his own party. He is a leader of the Tuesday Group, a weekly gathering of House Republicans who view themselves as “common-sense conservatives.”

Last week, Mr. Dent and a Democratic partner, Representative Ron Kind of Wisconsin, rolled out a long-shot bipartisan proposal of their own — a bill that would reopen the government with a six-month spending bill that includes a repeal of a medical device tax unpopular with some Democrats.

Mr. Dent acknowledged that ginning up enough bipartisan support to force Mr. Boehner to put his proposal on the floor for a vote would be difficult.

“I want to say to my Democratic friends up here today, you know they’ve put their necks out, they’ve agreed to make a change to health care law as part of this continuing resolution,” he said. “There are going to be members on the Republican side, on the far right, who are not going to like this because this bill does not defund or delay the health care law.”

“But,” Mr. Dent added, “it’s important that we accept incremental progress when we can, and this is one of those times.”

So far, however, there has been little tangible headway. Part of the problem is that moderates are behaving a bit too moderately. They have yet to vote with Democrats on procedural maneuvers that could force the hand of the Republican leadership or to sign a petition Democrats are circulating that would require a vote on a short-term spending bill to reopen the government if a majority of House members signed. They are unwilling to defy their leaders to that extent.

Another example of their hesitance to buck the system came when Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York, threatened a coup by 20 to 25 Republican lawmakers who, he said, would vote against their own party on a procedural motion in order to avert a shutdown. He was ultimately joined by just one fellow pragmatist — Mr. Dent.

“I was disappointed, but not necessarily surprised,” Mr. King said. “One thing I give the Tea Party credit for is they do what they say they’re going to do and they don’t care what anybody thinks, and they don’t care about bringing down the House.”

More centrist Republicans, Mr. King added, “they will talk, they will complain, but they’ve never gone head to head.”

As Mr. Dent explains the situation, the roughly two dozen pragmatists like himself — most of whom hail from Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states — are faced with a bigger challenge. “If I say I’m voting no, what am I accomplishing?” he asked. “We need yes votes, not no votes.”

There are also fewer of them. Connie Morella, a former Republican representative from Maryland, was considered a moderate and served during the last government shutdown 17 years ago. But if moderates then were “an endangered species,” said Ms. Morella, a professor at American University, now they’re “nearly an extinct species.”

During the last shutdown, in the mid-1990s, roughly one-third of the Republican conference came from districts President Bill Clinton had won, giving them some incentive to compromise. Now, according to David Wasserman, the House editor of The Cook Political Report, only 17 Republicans hold districts that Mr. Obama won in 2012. Mr. Dent’s district, for instance, was narrowly carried by Mitt Romney.

“Dent is a realist, in a party increasingly dominated by purists,” Mr. Wasserman said. “He’s always seen himself as a cooler head in a room full of fire-breathers, and to an extent that’s true.”

Mr. Dent’s seat, previously held by Senator Patrick J. Toomey, a staunch conservative, sits in a true swing district in eastern Pennsylvania. The district, which looks a bit like a craggy barbell, runs from Allentown and the Lehigh Valley to more Republican-leaning areas near Harrisburg.

Mr. Dent has proved himself to be more socially liberal than many of his Republican counterparts. He was just one of 15 Republicans in 2010 who voted to repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, and he is a co-sponsor of several acts to prevent bullying and discrimination based on sexual orientation. Earlier this year, he chastised a group of his colleagues for pushing a controversial bill to ban abortions after 20 weeks, saying they should be focusing on more important issues like the economy.

The dwindling coalition of centrist legislators on both sides of the aisle is one of the reasons the current Congress has all but ground to a halt.

“Republicans like Charlie Dent are the only reason Republicans can still plausibly get out of this jam,” Mr. Wasserman said. “The scary prospect for those wishing to avert similar situations in the future is the prospect of no Charlie Dents left in 10 or 20 years.”

So, has Mr. Dent ever thought about leaving the Republican Party, or calling Congress quits? “No, absolutely not!” he said.

For now, he just plans to keep doing what he thinks is best for the country, and continuing to explain his decisions to voters back home.

“I fully understand that my constituents are not going to agree with me on every vote I cast,” he said. “Hell, my wife doesn’t even agree with me on every vote I cast.”

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