Saturday, March 30, 2013 9:17 am
Partisan discord finds roots in toss-up districts
By CHARLES BABINGTONAssociated Press
If any Republican House members might be open to compromise with President Barack Obama and Democratic lawmakers, Rep. Steve Chabot would seem near the top of the list. He comes from an area so politically competitive that he lost his seat in 2008 to a Democrat, then won a rematch two years later. His new, redrawn district is safer, but Mitt Romney's 5-point margin over Obama was hardly a landslide.
Moreover, Chabot readily acknowledges that political compromise is the only way to accomplish anything in a democratic society as divided as the United States.
Yet Chabot toes an unyielding conservative line on virtually every big issue before Congress. He opposes any new taxes, even if they might lead to Democratic concessions on spending for Medicare and Social Security. He sees no need for new gun laws, including broader background checks on buyers.
He wants to overturn Obamacare, despite the president's re-election and the Supreme Court's decision upholding the health care law. He'd like to balance the federal budget in four years without new taxes, an improbable feat that would require extraordinary spending cuts far beyond those now triggering complaints.
Chabot, a former teacher and lawyer who has spent most of his career in politics, fits comfortably and quietly in the House GOP caucus. Outwardly, he's one of its more accommodating, measured members, rejecting the notion that compromise is cowardly or foolish.
"We have divided government in our country," Chabot recently told 75 constituents at one of two town hall meetings he held on a snowy Monday. "Neither side can pass anything on its own. You have to work with the other side."
But Democrats say Chabot and his colleagues have strange notions of compromise, especially on the tax-and-spend issues that preoccupy Congress.
Obama repeatedly says he can't begin to rein in costly entitlement programs dear to liberals such as Medicare and Social Security without Republicans agreeing to new taxes, chiefly on the rich. That's a non-starter for Chabot.
"I think we're already overtaxed," he told the gathering here. If anything, taxes should be cut, he said.
Like most of his House GOP colleagues, Chabot says Obama extracted all the new tax revenue he'll get when he forced Republicans to swallow the year-end "fiscal cliff" deal. It will generate about $620 billion in new revenues over 10 years. That's well below the $1 trillion the Republican House speaker suggested in December as part of a deficit-reduction "grand bargain," which never came to fruition.
"It's pretty hard to get to my right," Chabot said in an interview. It's a boast often heard from House Republicans, many of whom live in fear of losing a primary election to GOP challengers who accuse them of being too cozy with Democrats.
Whether it's because of his strategy or not, Chabot, 60, says he has never had a Republican primary challenger in his congressional career, which began in 1994.
Some might argue that Chabot's popularity with GOP primary voters would free him to edge toward the political center, in search of independent voters who can prove crucial in November general elections. Indeed, his town hall meetings - in contrast to some that are dominated by flag-waving tea partyers - drew a smattering of political moderates urging bipartisan cooperation.
Chabot, unfailingly polite and soft-spoken, stuck to positions embraced by his fierier, take-no-prisoners colleagues.
One woman said she supports "responsible gun ownership" and "sensible gun laws." She said she supports background checks on all gun buyers, and restrictions on military-style weapons.
Chabot offered the same reply he gave later to a woman who said the only difference between a free person and a slave "is a gun." He's unlikely to support any new gun laws, Chabot said, because criminals would ignore them, and there are already enough laws on the books.
When a man asked Chabot why he called Obama's 2010 health care law "a takeover" instead of a Supreme Court-backed act of Congress, the congressman replied: "I consider it a government takeover." The only reason it hasn't been overturned, Chabot said, is because "we just don't have the votes."
At an evening town hall meeting in the North Bend suburb of Cincinnati, Bill Groll agreed with Chabot on just about everything. Groll, a retired engineering technician for General Electric, said both parties in Washington should work together to shrink the deficit.
"The Republicans are trying," he said in an interview, "but the Democrats won't let them."
Groll, 62, said there's no need to raise taxes, even if it's the price Democrats demand for slowing the growth of entitlement programs. "Social Security is not really an entitlement," Groll added. "You pay into it. It's like an insurance thing."
As Chabot's hour-long session continued, chances for bipartisan agreements seemed to dim.
"The food stamp program is replete with waste and fraud and abuse," Chabot said, citing programs he says can stand deeper spending cuts. Money spent on public housing, he said, should go toward reducing the deficit.
When a man asked, "is Obama working toward a socialist country?" Chabot replied, "He would say no."
But the United States is becoming more like Europe, the congressman added, so "we're getting pretty close."
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