WASHINGTON - During the 2013 government shutdown, Rep. Charlie Dent of Allentown became something of a national spokesman for the oft-overlooked centrist Republicans, a group that arguably includes every GOP congressman from the Philadelphia suburbs.

After the standoff torpedoed GOP approval ratings, Dent said that he thought Republicans had learned lessons and that moderates would be more ready to flex their muscles.

Some of them did just that last week while expressing continued frustration with an agenda advanced by their conference's most conservative and confrontational figures. In a push-and-pull that peaked Wednesday and Thursday, Republican women and moderates from the nation's Northeast forced GOP House leaders to back off from a bill that would bar abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

The fight hinged on the bill's rape exception, which said women who had been raped could still get an abortion after 20 weeks, but only if they had reported the crime to police. The bill, dubbed the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, was intended to make a point on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade and as abortion foes held a massive rally in Washington.

But the rally participants were left disappointed as the bill was pulled.

Women in the Republican conference and several Republicans from the Northeast, including members of the Philadelphia area's all-male delegation, worried about dragging their party back into an argument over rape, a topic that has led to embarrassing moments for the GOP.

"I prefer that we avoid these very contentious social issues," Dent told Washington reporters. "Week one, we had a speaker election that did not go as well as a lot of us would have liked. Week two, we got into a big fight over deporting children, something that a lot of us didn't want to have a discussion about. Week three, we are now talking about rape and incest and reportable rapes and incest for minors. . . . I just can't wait for week four."

He was referring to a failed conservative coup against Speaker John Boehner and a vote to end deportation exceptions for "dreamers" - undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children who have grown up here. Dent and other area Republicans broke with their party to oppose the move.

On the abortion bill, U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan (R., Pa.) of Delaware County told the Washington Post that he worried about making rape victims "come forward and relive the issue through having to further testify."

The differences go beyond one clause in one bill. They are part of a deeper divide in the GOP over tone and approach.

Philadelphia-area Republicans, such as Meehan, Dent, and others represent moderate districts and have repeatedly argued for a less confrontational posture.

They still criticize President Obama and favor most of the things one would expect of a Republican - lower taxes, less regulation, building Keystone XL, curbing the Affordable Care Act - but they are more amenable to cutting deals and making incremental progress rather than passing hard-line bills that make bolder statements but have no chance of becoming law. (Though the GOP controls both chambers of Congress, Democrats in the Senate can still use the filibuster to block any measures - unless the bills are appealing enough to attract Democratic moderates.)

Local Republicans, as Dent's comments show, would also prefer to avoid the social issues that still inspire some of the party's base. If you ask them about abortion or same-sex marriage, they'll tell you their (usually conservative) position.

jtamari@phillynews.com @JonathanTamari

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