By Scott Wong - 02/25/15 06:00 AM EST
Centrist Republican Rep. Charlie Dent has emerged as his own party’s chief critic.
After House and Senate Republicans huddled last month at a resort in his Pennsylvania district to plot their 2015 agenda and messaging strategy, Dent spent the ensuing weeks ripping those same tactics as they went horribly awry.
Now he’s sounding the alarm on cable TV and in other media interviews that his own party — not the White House — will be to blame by voters if neither party caves over President Obama’s immigration executive actions and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) shuts down at the end of the week.
Dent worries these self-made crises are eroding public confidence in Republicans, who won control of both chambers of Congress last fall on the promise of governing in Washington. And he said such tactics will do unnecessary harm to the GOP’s 2016 hopefuls.
“It’s important that we go about avoiding these types of cliffs or showdowns that, in my view, won’t end well for us Republicans,” Dent told The Hill in a phone interview. “They will damage us as we move into a presidential year and damage our likely presidential nominees.”
As one of the few remaining GOP centrists, it’s not unusual for Dent to buck party leaders in a House conference dominated by conservatives.
Dent’s eastern Pennsylvania district, which includes Allentown and some Harrisburg suburbs, is a rare swing district that narrowly went for Obama in 2008 and Republican Mitt Romney in 2012.
His moderate brand of politics plays well with voters back home: Dent didn’t have a primary challenger or general election challenger last year, though his new criticism of the right could spur a GOP challenger next year.
Dent now finds himself in the tricky position of often opposing his own party while at the same time serving as an appropriator and among Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerCameras go dark during House Democrats' sit-in Rubio flies with Obama on Air Force One to Orlando Juan Williams: The capitulation of Paul Ryan MORE’s inner circle of committee chairmen. Last month, BoehnerJohn BoehnerCameras go dark during House Democrats' sit-in Rubio flies with Obama on Air Force One to Orlando Juan Williams: The capitulation of Paul Ryan MORE (R-Ohio) handpicked Dent to lead the Ethics Committee — not exactly a highly coveted job but a gavel nonetheless.
Even from his new perch, Dent said he hasn’t felt any pressure from leadership to toe the company line. While he periodically meets with Boehner, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and other party leaders, he is not part of the Speaker’s “kitchen Cabinet” of close friends and advisers.
“I write my own talking points,” Dent said last week in the phone interview from Barcelona, where he was visiting his daughter, who is studying there. “A lot of things I’ve said reflect what many colleagues in marginal, swing districts are thinking. It’s not a matter of being on message or off message — the Speaker and leaders need to hear perspective from all members.”
Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith declined to comment on Dent’s criticism but said the Speaker is confident in the chairman’s ability to lead the bipartisan Ethics panel, which investigates violations of the chamber’s ethics rules.
“Being chairman of the Ethics Committee is one of the most difficult assignments in the House,” Smith said. “Chairman Dent has significant experience in dealing with ethics matters and is respected on both sides of the aisle for his integrity and good judgment.”
A former state lawmaker elected to Congress in 2004, the 54-year-old Dent has spent the past decade burnishing his reputation as a serious, pragmatic legislator — “one of the adults in the room,” as one source put it.
Last year, Dent and the rest of the Pennsylvania delegation successfully lobbied leadership to hold the annual GOP retreat in Hershey, the “sweetest place on Earth,” he frequently reminded them. He spoke several times with Rep. Cathy McMorris RodgersCathy McMorris RodgersGOP campaign chief: Turn up the heat on Clinton GOP rep: Ryan's agenda to restore representative government Restoring the VA's promise to veterans MORE (Wash.), who, as GOP conference chairwoman, was responsible for selecting the site.
GOP senators, who had just captured the majority, eventually signed on, too, making it the first joint House-Senate GOP summit in a decade and the first chance for Republicans to huddle since their triumph at the polls in November.
But just days later, Dent stepped before his GOP colleagues in a closed-door caucus meeting in the Capitol’s basement and bluntly declared that the opening weeks of the 114th Congress had been a disaster.
He repeated the now-infamous quote that he couldn’t “wait for week four” to reporters and again the next day for other reporters who had missed it the first time. He did so a third time last week in his phone interview with The Hill.
Dent suspected some of his conservative colleagues privately scoffed at his remarks, but no one told him off to his face.
Dent thought his party should have stuck to bread-and-butter issues all along.
“Our job is to talk about how we are going to govern the country, grow the economy, create jobs and focus really hard on a sound economic message,” he said. “I thought, if we engage too much with these divisive social issues, we do that at great risk.”
He now finds himself battling immigration hard-liners in his party over how to stave off a DHS shutdown.
While Dent thinks Obama overstepped his executive authority in shielding millions of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally from deportation, he’s joining Democrats in calling for a clean funding bill that doesn’t include any controversial riders.
His prediction: Leaders and members will either cave and pass a clean bill, or pass another short-term stopgap measure known as a continuing resolution to buy more time.
“I never felt that defunding the president’s executive action was part of a good tactic. I don’t think that tactic will yield a successful outcome,” said Dent, who noted that states are challenging Obama’s actions in the courts. “My comments are about tactics, and I believe bad tactics yield a bad outcome.
“Somebody told me, ‘You don’t know what the Senate will pass.’ Well, I know what the hell the Senate is not going to pass — they’re not going to pass the bill we sent them.”