Can Mark Meadows and Charlie Dent, two of the House Republicans' most visible, most vocal ideological gladiators, get along? Trillions of federal dollars depend on the answer.
Meadows, R-N.C., heads the take-no-prisoners Freedom Caucus, which includes many congressmen whose refusal to agree on budget issues helped lead to the partial 2013 government shutdown. This time the group, believed to include about 40 members, wants significant cuts in entitlement programs, meaning veterans, farmers, the elderly and others could feel the pain.
Dent, R-Pa., is a leader of the Tuesday Group, a band of about 50 center-right Republicans who reject that approach.
So far, the two are friendly but not necessarily fast friends. They’re affable, but they’re also adamant. They’re well aware that past efforts at bringing the two forces together hasn’t ended well.
But their styles and personalities suggest they can do business with one another, offering hope that Republicans can resolve their internal differences and avoid a shutdown once the fiscal year begins October 1.
Finding common ground won’t be easy, since the biggest impasse involves how much money can be cut – and who back home would suffer the most.
Politics provides a compelling reason to get along. The GOP is striving to prove it can govern after voters awarded Republicans control of the House of Representatives, the Senate and White House in last year’s election
"There’s significant risk for the Republican Party in the midterm elections" if it doesn’t pass a budget, fails to end Obamacare, and doesn’t revamp the nation’s tax code, said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan Inside Elections. “They still have a divide in ideology and strategy and tactics that’s hindering their ability to move legislation along.”
Meadows and Dent, both 57, do have a history of finding enough in common to keep legislation moving.
"I like Charlie," Meadows told reporters before a Freedom Caucus meeting last week. "When Charlie makes an argument, I wish someone else in the Tuesday Group would make it because Charlie makes it in such a better way than some of his colleagues might make it, which makes it harder for me to go against and defend."
Then Meadows proceeded to firmly reject assertions by Dent’s group that $200 billion in mandatory spending cuts over 10 years “is not practical.” Meadows flatly predicted there won’t be enough votes from Freedom Caucus members and other conservative to pass a budget if the cuts aren’t significantly over the $200 billion mark.
Dent, in an interview later, was careful to sum up the stance by Meadows and his troops as politics, not personal.
"I communicate with them, we talk," Dent said of Meadows and the Freedom Caucus. "We don’t have any kind of bitter relationship. We just have differences of opinion on policy from time to time – and certainly on tactics and strategy as well.
“But it’s not personal. I can work with Mark Meadows and (former Freedom Caucus Chair) Jim Jordan and others in the group and it’s a civil dialogue."
Dent and Meadows are capable of playing hardball. Dent’s normally low-key group took the extraordinary step – for them – and sent a letter signed by 20 members to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., last month declaring that without "a bipartisan, bicameral agreement, we are reticent to support any budget resolution on the House floor" after the Freedom Caucus repeatedly stated its demands.
"Others around here draw lines in the sand routinely and others of us lay down a marker and they consider it a human rights violation," said Dent in a not-so-thinly veiled reference to his Freedom Caucus counterparts. "When we do it, we’re doing it because we’re serious…We don’t cry wolf every day. It was not done on impulse."
AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Ryan, said Friday the speaker is aware of Tuesday Group’s concerns. She added that "family discussions" continue among Republicans on the budget.
Dent and Meadows do have a history of working together. They co-sponsored a 2014 bill to extend unemployment benefits an additional year, reduce the number of weeks the benefit can be collected, and repeal a tax on medical devices. Their measure never received a House floor vote.
But recent history has shown that the Freedom Caucus/Tuesday Group tug-of-war can be brimming with political danger. Tuesday Group members howled when Rep. Tom MacArthur, R-N.J., then a co-chair, negotiated a deal with Meadows that salvaged an Obamacare repeal and replace bill that the House eventually passed in May.
Outraged Tuesday groupers talked of stripping MacArthur of his co-chairmanship. He relinquished it instead, saying tartly, "Many in the Tuesday Group are eager to live up to our ideals of being problem-solvers, while others seem unwilling to compromise. The recent health care debate was illustrative."
Meanwhile, some conservatives and outside groups that usually praise the Freedom Caucus wondered why it was dealing with a moderate group they distrust.
"You have tribalization in politics taking place," said former Rep. Constance Morella, a moderate Republican who teaches at Washington’s American University. "Either you’re for it or against it. It’s a real dilemma."
It’s a dilemma that both leaders say they can overcome. Meadows said he and Dent speak at least once a week, but conceded that "we have to have more dialogue." Dent echoed that he and Meadows "have done stuff together, not lately, but, we have.”
"You learn how to agree to disagree without being disagreeable and work with the guy the next day on something that you agree on," Dent said. "In a democracy, that’s how it’s supposed to work."