Three days after the Republican health-care bill collapsed, Rep. Charlie Dent (R) of Pennsylvania called a press conference to tell reporters he was going to try a different way to fix the Affordable Care Act.
Standing just off the House floor, Congressman Dent said the only way to sustainable, durable health-care reform is to work with Democrats – one fix at a time. That was the conclusion he'd come to along with a few other Republicans.
That stance resonated with some voters back in Dent’s politically mixed Pennsylvania district. “It was uplifting,” says Sandra Birchmeier, a Democrat and Dent fan, who saw the press conference on the local news that night.
Dent’s strategy may sound naïve in an era of hyper-polarization, in which the hard-line Freedom Caucus looks to have the upper hand among House Republicans. But Dent and other relatively moderate Republicans just proved they are a force to be reckoned with.
Hard-liners took the fall for the health-care debacle, but at least 25 non-Freedom Caucus members either leaned against, or, like Dent, said flat-out that they would oppose the bill if it came to the floor. For lack of votes, it never did.
In bucking their own leadership – and President Trump – moderate Republicans have suddenly become far more visible, after years of being overshadowed by their staunch right-wing colleagues. Now, on everything from tax reform to spending and infrastructure, they will likely try to pull their conservative leadership toward more centrist positions that will fly in their swing districts.
“There’s a tug of war within the party” and moderates are the “majority-makers,” says Michael Steel, who was the spokesman for former House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio. “They will provide the margin of victory or loss on every big issue.”
Like-minded Republicans have another thing going for them, says Dent, in an interview at his Allentown, Pa., district office on Friday. Reality.
Shedding his bomber jacket on a cold rainy day, the congressmen relaxes into a leather chair and points out that it has taken votes from both parties to pass spending bills, avert fiscal cliffs, increase the debt ceiling, and approve major legislation and reforms. The big exception was Obamacare, of course.
“Now the question is: Why don’t we simply accept what appears to be reality, that in order to pass any of these big bills, that we have to do it on a bipartisan basis?”
Why some Democrats cheer for Dent
Hours earlier, cars packed the parking lot at a Bethlehem, Pa., community center, when about 400 people came to hear Dent hold his first in-person town hall of the new Congress.
Standing on a bunting-festooned stage, he reached into a basket of constituent questions, and read from an index card: “Will you, as an elected official representative of the people, stand up against the morass of lies and misinformation put forth by this administration, or will you hide?”
Cheers erupted from an overwhelmingly Democratic crowd (and sometimes, jeers). When the noise died down, Dent – now starting his seventh term – answered in substance: My job is to represent the people of my district. If the administration is on the right track on an issue, I will work with them. If they are on the wrong track, I will stand as a check.
“I’ve done that,” he said, setting off another round of hearty applause. “I know how to say ‘no’ to people."
The pulling of the health-care bill – brought on in part by opposition from folks like Dent – was a huge defeat for the president. He has since vowed to fight the right-wing Freedom Caucus if they don’t “get on the team.”
But while the failure was blamed on hard-liners, it also underscored the power of GOP moderates.
“I think they recognize at this point what their authority is, what their power is, and what they mean to Trump,” says former Rep. Tom Davis (R) of Virginia, who once belonged to the center-right caucus now co-chaired by Dent, called the Tuesday Group.
“I think you’re going to see them move more into driving a lot of policy coming out of the House,” says Davis, speaking of the Tuesday Group and other Republicans who consider themselves the “governance wing” of the party.
The White House is still working with moderates and the Freedom Caucus to find enough votes to pass a GOP health care bill.
United we stand – but which 'we'?
During the Obama years, the GOP governance wing was overshadowed by the immovable tea partiers, who went on to form the highly disciplined Freedom Caucus in 2015.
While ideological tea partiers practiced fiscal brinkmanship to cut government spending and pushed the country into a partial government shutdown to repeal Obamacare, Dent says the GOP governing wing worked to “keep the wheels from falling off the wagon.”
“We were often criticized as capitulators, surrenderers, sell-outs, compromisers, a number of disparaging terms,” he says in the interview. “Yet at the same time, many of those people who were criticizing us were also glad that we got the job done.”
Dent says the Tuesday Group – whose 54 members were split on the GOP health-care plan – is not by its nature a “no” caucus. Through discussions among its ideologically diverse members, it tries to get to “yes” and work with the GOP leadership. On Monday, a number of Tuesday Group members who had been willing to back the health-care bill met with Vice President Pence and other White House officials to discuss potential modifications, including the possibility of letting governors opt out of some aspects of Obamacare.
But as Dent points out, every major reform or big piece of legislation requires both parties to be involved. “On health care, we feel like we’ve got to move forward incrementally,” he said at the press conference. “We’ve got to do this in a bipartisan way, so that it’s a sustainable, durable reform.”
While Ms. Birchmeier, the Democratic voter, applauded Dent for not being “party-line,” his bipartisan stance on health-care is a problem for Jean, a Republican at the town hall who did not want her last name used. “I think Republicans need to stay strong, and together,” she said.
Will Trump work with Democrats?
That certainly seems to be the sentiment of President Trump, with his threatening tweets against Freedom Caucus members and Democrats.
But there’s also the side of him that appears willing to work with Democrats, even as he excoriates them. That’s the side that some moderate Republicans hope will come to the fore, though it’s unclear when – or if – that might happen.
Carlos Curbelo (R) of Florida, a Tuesday Group member whose district was won by Hillary Clinton, appreciates Dent’s bipartisan outreach on fixing Obamacare. He adds that “it seems like the president and his chief of staff have been sending similar messages, so we’ll see. It could work.”
Would Democrats go along? House and Senate Democratic leaders have made it clear they have no interest unless Republicans repudiate their efforts to repeal and undermine the Affordable Care Act.
“I hope they come to the table. They haven’t done so yet,” says Rep. Leonard Lance (R) of New Jersey. A Tuesday Group member, he was a declared “no” vote against the GOP health care plan. Democrats are targeting his district, which also went for Mrs. Clinton.
Dent says that some members of the moderate New Democrat Coalition have expressed an interest in working with him on improving Obamacare. But he wishes that the GOP leadership would recognize the necessity of bipartisanship.
Certainly on health care, Speaker Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin shows no interest. If Republicans can’t pass reforms on their own, “then [Mr. Trump will] just go work with Democrats to try and change Obamacare and that’s not, that’s hardly a conservative thing,” the speaker said on “CBS This Morning” last week.
Does that mean that pragmatists will have to flex more muscle – like hard-liners?
The Freedom Caucus’s 30 or so members have the power to block anything not deemed conservative enough, since Republicans can afford to lose only 21 votes to pass a bill. But that is not because the right-wing caucus is bigger than the Tuesday Group, but rather because it often acts as a uniform bloc – requiring an 80 percent consensus on many decisions. Dent's group is more about discussing. It doesn't take positions and vote as a bloc.
“The Freedom Caucus has strength because it understands the power of 21,” says Dent. “I think sometimes we as Tuesday Group members have to understand the power of 21.”