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Pittenger, Watt views of crisis in Washington reflect national, local divide

With the government shutdown entering its second week, the divergent views of three Charlotte-area congressmen on Tuesday reflected the deep divide that has paralyzed the nation’s capital.

Republican Reps. Robert Pittenger and Richard Hudson said Tuesday that some Charlotte-area constituents tell them they want the shutdown ended, but even more say stopping the Affordable Care Act and cutting federal spending are more important.

But Democratic Rep. Mel Watt said he’s hearing from constituents who just want the shutdown to end and aren’t interested in debating the health-care law.

In separate phone interviews with the Observer, the three men’s views mirrored the views of their parties.

Pittenger said when the shutdown began Oct. 1, he was hearing from people who were “very much opposed” to the closure. His office reported receiving 600 emails that day – more than it normally receives in a week – with people voicing opinions on both sides of the debate.

But as some people began receiving letters from their insurers detailing steep premium hikes, he said, more began urging him to keep battling the health-care law.

“It’s very mixed in that nobody wants a shutdown,” said Pittenger, whose 9th Congressional District includes part of Mecklenburg, Iredell and Union counties. “I don’t want a shutdown. … But that concern is becoming less heard than the voices expressing great concern and displeasure over the high increase in their premiums.”

Hudson’s 8th Congressional District stretches from Cabarrus and Union counties east to Robeson County, and includes a small piece of Mecklenburg County. He said calls to his office are running “60-40 for holding the line on not reopening the government until we can get some agreement on delaying Obamacare.”

He said he’s been hearing similar stories about premium increases and the need to rein in federal spending. He said any negotiations for reopening the government need to include negotiations on the healthcare law.

“I’m getting a lot of support for what we’re doing,” he said. “It just reinforces the stand that I’ve taken.”

Both said they continue to seek a one-year delay in the health-care law’s individual mandate.

Watt, whose 12th District runs from Charlotte to Greensboro, said his office doesn’t keep statistics on incoming calls or emails, but it has been receiving a “somewhat higher than normal” number of callers since the shutdown.

“All of them are disappointed that the government is shut down,” he said. “Some of them can’t distinguish between what’s causing it, they just want it to be open. And others try to blame it on one party or the other. There’s no pattern to it that I can discern.”

He senses no groundswell for uprooting the health-care law. He noted the law was passed by Congress, upheld by the Supreme Court, and has nothing to do with lawmakers fulfilling their obligation to keep the government running.

“If you don’t like what the discussion is about, what do you do? You try to change it to another subject,” he said. “We need to focus on what this is about. It’s about whether we will fund the government.”

Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer said it’s entirely possible for the congressmen to be hearing different versions of what “the public’s will” might be. For instance, Pittenger’s district voted overwhelmingly for Republican Mitt Romney in last year’s presidential election, while Watt’s strongly favored President Barack Obama.

Perceptions of “the public’s will can be skewed to one side when you have a district that’s so heavily skewed to one side or the other,” he said.

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and other Republican conservatives initially pushed for defunding the healthcare law, also known as Obamacare, as a condition of financing the federal government’s operations. Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have said they won’t negotiate until Congress first pays for the government’s operations.

House Speaker John Boehner and other Republican leaders have since been moving their battleground from the healthcare law fight to the Oct. 17 deadline for raising the nation’s debt ceiling. Without an increase, White House officials say, the nation will default on its debt for the first time, jarring confidence in the stability of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency.

Business leaders have joined in those warnings. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has called on congressional leaders to avoid a default and keep the government running. Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan and other top financial leaders visited the White House last week and warned that a default would have disastrous effects on the U.S. economy.

Pittenger and Hudson said business leaders should consider that the national debt and entitlement spending are on an unsustainable track.

Democrats’ refusal to negotiate is irresponsible, Hudson and Pittenger said.

Asked whether he would consider concessions on the health-care law mandatory in any negotiations with Democrats, Pittenger mentioned reforming programs such Medicare.

“There’s any number of ways thoughtful, reasonable people can sit down and work out some constructive way to resolve these differences,” he said.

Hudson said he wouldn’t agree to reopen the government absent concessions on Obamacare. He said he’d support a temporary resolution aimed at lifting the debt ceiling, but only if it included dollar-for-dollar reductions in federal spending.

Watt said Republicans want to use the shutdown and the debt ceiling as leverage in negotiating long-term spending and entitlement reform with Obama.

He said Democrats shouldn’t let them do so. The president has repeatedly expressed a willingness in the past to negotiate with Republicans on entitlement reform, Watt said, adding that Obama shouldn’t negotiate now with the debt ceiling and government funding on the table.

He added that the current level of funding is already at Republican-friendly levels, thanks to about $1 trillion in automatic spending cuts that kicked in earlier this year through the so-called sequester.

“We’ve been negotiating about (broader budget deals) forever and will continue to negotiate, but I have no inclination to negotiate at a time when they’re saying they’ll bring the whole economy of the United States and perhaps the world to its knees as the price of that discussion,” Watt said. “I don’t have much patience for negotiations with a gun to my head.”

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