WASHINGTON - Five Philadelphia-area Republicans have broken ranks with their party and called for a new approach to end the federal government shutdown, the latest being Pennsylvania Rep. Jim Gerlach.
Reps. Charles W. Dent, Michael Fitzpatrick, Pat Meehan, and Jon Runyan - all from moderate districts and all more vulnerable to a political challenge than most House members - urged the GOP to offer a "clean" bill that would fund the government without attaching any changes to President Obama's sweeping health law.
The request, made on the day the federal government's shutdown unfolded, in effect agrees to the conditions set by the president and Senate Democrats and goes against conservative Republicans.
A sixth area congressman, Rep. Frank LoBiondo, agreed that a clean bill was one option but also argued that, whatever the route, Republicans needed to chart a new course after days of voting for measures that were predictably rejected by Obama and Senate Democrats.
"If the strategy is not going to get us a result or a conclusion, I'm not going to go along with it," said LoBiondo, whose South Jersey district sweeps from Atlantic City to the Delaware River.
As most lawmakers dug in Tuesday in the fight over funding the government and Obama's health law, the local Republicans' stand provided a small glimpse at a possible resolution.
"I came to Washington to fix government, not shut it down," said Meehan, of Delaware County.
Dent, from Allentown, on Monday became one of the first Republicans in the House to rebel against strategies set by an unbending conservative bloc. Meehan; Runyan, from South Jersey; and Fitzpatrick, from Bucks, joined him Tuesday.
The six lawmakers represent districts that Obama either won in 2012 or narrowly lost - meaning they were elected by a mix of swing voters, Democrats and Republicans.
Fitzpatrick, Gerlach, Runyan, and LoBiondo have all been named as top Democratic targets in 2014, and Democrats are already using the shutdown as political fodder.
"It's the swing guys who are always vulnerable, and they feel it the most," said Julian Zelizer, a political historian from Princeton. "There's not as many of them anymore, but they pay the price for what relatively safe Republicans are pushing for."
Dent said moderates were the key to "the governing wing" of the Republican Party. Earlier this year, moderate Republicans joined Democrats to help pass bills that averted the "fiscal cliff" and provided aid after Hurricane Sandy.
"The speaker needs many members - members who I call center right - he needs them to govern," Dent said. "Others don't have that same sense of governance," he said.
In this fight, Dent predicted that more Republican House members would call for an end to a standoff that few believe the GOP can win.
"Given the opportunity, I believe a clean resolution would pass the House in a bipartisan vote," he said after an afternoon meeting of House Republicans. "I've had many members say things to me that they're prepared to vote for one. They were prepared to vote for one yesterday. They're prepared to vote for one today."
Only about a dozen Republicans have publicly expressed that view, and Speaker John A. Boehner has followed the demands of conservatives who want to undercut the health law known as Obamacare.
Those Republicans argue that the spending fight is a chance to amend a law that will harm the economy and health coverage overall. They pointed to glitches in the rollout of Obama's health-care exchanges, which went live Tuesday, and accused the president of being the one unwilling to compromise.
Obama and Senate Democrats insist they will not negotiate as long as Republicans use a government shutdown as leverage. To them, keeping the government running is a basic duty, not a cause for haggling over existing laws.
Democrats, though, pointed out that the local Republicans who spoke out Tuesday had each voted with the rest of their caucus for a series of doomed House plans. They supported bills that included provisions to defund the health-care act, delay it for a year, and repeal a tax on medical-device makers, among other steps to undercut the law.
Each policy was attached to a short-term spending bill, so Republicans said the votes were cast to keep the government running.
Now that the government has shuttered, with hundreds of thousands of workers furloughed and national monuments closed to the public, some Republicans said it was time for a solution the Senate and president would accept.
LoBiondo, in his 10th term in the House, remembers the damage done by the 1995-96 shutdown.
"I've been through this before," he said in an interview as the workday began and the shutdown effects became visible. "The last time around we were promised this would be very short-lived. Twenty days later we were still in the same room. I'd like us to find a way to move forward."
Democrats were already running robocalls in LoBiondo's district, where Obama took 54 percent of the vote in 2012 - his third-best showing in districts held by Republicans.
Calls to LoBiondo's office seem to reflect the split in the Capitol.
The messages, he said, range from "Obamacare is killing the country, stay the course" to "we'd like to see you burned at the stake because you're part of the problem."