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Is N.C.’s Pittenger Republican enough to withstand tea party challenge?

By Franco Ordoñez
McClatchy Washington Bureau
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/02/16/23/42/1npDj9.Em.138.jpeg|316
    JEFF WILLHELM - jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com
    Congressman Robert Pittenger speaks to a news crew on Nov. 6 at the Billy Graham Library. Pittenger has been experiencing the limitations new Congress members face when trying to make a mark on the system.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/02/16/23/37/LryFo.Em.138.jpeg|209
    JEFF WILLHELM - jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com
    Congressman Robert Pittenger, right, greets motorists dropping food by the Billy Graham Library for a food drive on Nov. 6. Pittenger has been experiencing the limitations new Congress members face when trying to make a mark on the system.

WASHINGTON

A year ago, North Carolina Rep. Robert Pittenger strode into Washington with a plan to stop the war between the parties. He wanted to instill some “humanity” into a dysfunctional city where Republicans and Democrats sometimes can barely look at each other.

The Charlotte Republican started a bipartisan freshman caucus whose mission was to help reshape Washington. The group still meets, but it has largely dropped from the spotlight. Pittenger now has firsthand experience of the limitations new members face trying to make a mark when they’re one of 435 members – let alone a freshman.

“You have to find out: ‘Where can I make a difference?’ ” Pittenger said.

He has stuck primarily to the mainstream Republican line. He hasn’t drawn much negative attention to himself – except for one hiccup during the shutdown debacle.

Pittenger told tea party groups this summer that he opposed a push to defund the Affordable Care Act, which led to the government shutdown. That exchange went viral on YouTube. The Tea Party Leadership Fund PAC, which has targeted Pittenger, said Wednesday it plans to announce a primary challenger, possibly as soon as this week.

As a freshman, Pittenger is vulnerable, but he beat 10 other Republicans in a drawn-out 2012 primary. And the Charlotte real estate investor has also shown he’s willing to invest his own money in campaigns.

Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer said Pittenger has not done anything that would ignite a revolt to oust him. He said the reality is there is little any new member can accomplish in today’s Congress, which is considered one of the least effective in decades.

Bitzer said a main goal of any incoming member is to bring “good feelings” back to constituents.

“What freshman members seek to do is to show voters back home that indeed they made the right choice and ensure they don’t have buyers’ remorse,” Bitzer said.

The path of the congressman

Every day, Pittenger is typically out the door of his condo near the Capitol and on a treadmill by 6 a.m. By 7:30 a.m., he’s at his desk buried in documents as part of his work on the Financial Services Committee.

When Pittenger was sworn in, his son approached Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and asked if his father could exercise with him. The former vice presidential candidate is known for his disciplined workouts.

Pittenger joined Ryan’s group doing P90X training for 10 months, but he soon thought he needed an earlier start.

“I didn’t realize how incredibly demanding it was going to be to do your job,” he said. “Learning what I’ve had to learn in financial services has been inordinately time consuming.”

The congressman has zigzagged across the 9th District, as well as the world. He’s helped Mooresville with road issues and Charlotte with its air traffic control tower. He’s visited Israel, Egypt and Libya on fact-finding missions.

He’s introduced four bills and co-sponsored 164 pieces of legislation. None of his bills became law and just four of those he co-sponsored did, which his staff blames on Democratic Senate leadership.

Pittenger has played the role of good Republican soldier, criticizing President Obama on everything from the health care law to the Benghazi attack investigation. He uses Southern charm to make pointed questions sound like compliments.

When the new Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen appeared before the House Financial Services Committee, he told her he had three daughters.“I’m (as) proud of your success as I am theirs,” he told her.

He then dug into her testimony and got her to acknowledge that reversing some tax increases can spur growth, a surprising statement from the Obama administration.

Some criticism from all sides

Critics on the left complain that the constant criticism of Obama is counterproductive and undercuts Pittenger’s claims that he wants to work in a bipartisan fashion.

But Pittenger has also taken heat on the right. At least one tea party group considers him a RINO, or Republican in Name Only.

At a town hall meeting at Queens University of Charlotte last summer, Pittenger was asked if he would join other Republicans and vote to defund the health care law in connection with funding the government. He answered bluntly: no, and then warned the plan was doomed. The exchange, caught on video, went viral.

He later voted to defund the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare,” after the House passed a provision that would ensure the military would be paid during a shutdown. He then voted to raise the debt ceiling to reopen the government.

“You can call yourself a Republican all you want, but you cannot vote to fund Obamacare and then say you’re a Republican,” said Dan Backer, general counsel of the Virginia-based Tea Party Leadership Fund PAC.

Backer said Wednesday his group is working with two potential challengers and could make an announcement anytime this month.

Pittenger’s bipartisan group, United Solutions, has drawn little attention; but it continues to meet. Members try to sponsor each other’s legislation. Recently, the group backed the bipartisan budget deal struck by Ryan and Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash.

At least they’re interacting, said Eric Heberlig, a political scientist at UNC Charlotte. Even advertising he’s working on bipartisan activities instead of only working on issues that appeal to Pittenger’s base can be dangerous in today’s climate.

“Building personal relationships, any politician will tell you, that’s a critical facet of the job. I don’t think anybody thinks that’s the end,” he said. “But its a precursor to doing anything else.”

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