A Day in the Life: One Republican's Quest for Compromise in an Age of Hardliners

PHOTO: Republican Rep. Leonard Lance looks for a compromise that could end the government shutdown and get Congress back up and running.PlayABC News
WATCH A Day in the Life: One Republican's Quest for a Shutdown Ending

Most of Rep. Leonard Lance's New Jersey constituents were fairly cordial when he returned their calls Tuesday afternoon, but "sometimes they shout and yell," the Republican said.

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"Sometimes they just vent."

It's not hard to see why. Nine days into a government shutdown, Lance is one of a small group of Republicans and Democrats in Congress looking desperately for an escape valve to the crisis of government that seems to go on and on. Some, like Lance, are torn between their antipathy toward the health care law at the center of the shutdown standoff and their desire to get the government working, quickly.

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ABC News spent more than nine hours with Lance during a typical shutdown day, following the lawmaker as he met with constituents his staff and otherwise tried to keep the wheels of Congress moving during the shutdown.

Lance, 61, met with his interns earlier in the day over a few slices of pizza to review the day's calls with their northern New Jersey constituents. This week in his office there were as many college-age interns as professional staff, who are still mostly furloughed.

"How many calls have we had today on the shutdown?" Lance asked.

Almost every single one, replies one of the interns. Calls on the debt limit are coming in fast, too. "Every day, more and more," she added.

There are callers from California, Texas, Alaska, but mostly from Lance's district where he says the electorate is probably more homed in on the intricacies of the latest standoff in Washington than the average congressional district.

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His constituents are mostly well-educated, well off, white-collar workers. His district trends Republican, but he has more than enough Democrats calling to give him a piece of their mind.

Some would call Lance a "moderate" Republican. But he's really not a fan of that label. He prefers "mainstream."

"No, no, no," he said, objecting to the moderate label. "I consider myself a conservative.

"I consider myself an extremely strong Republican, and I come from the background of a Republican Party that believes strongly in paying bills and paying bills on time," he added.

Lance doesn't want to be viewed as someone who is "extreme" on the issues, but that hasn't stopped constituents in his district from calling, angry that some in his party, the tea party wing, have brought Congress to a standstill over President Obama's health care law.

He voted against Obama's health care law and wants it replaced.

But Lance and a group of moderates from both parties have signed on to a strategy that he said he isn't sure is "a way out" of the impasse, although it's one proposal he can get behind.

After initially signaling his openness to a "clean" government funding bill, no strings attached, Lance now says he wants only one small concession from Democrats: repeal the medical device tax.

It's an unappealing provision in the Affordable Care Act that has managed to get some Democrats and Republicans to agree that it's probably best stricken from the law books.

But that bid for compromise has fallen on deaf ears in the halls of Congress.

For Lance, however, the proposal is both something he thinks Democrats could support, and it also happens to be good for his district, "the medicine chest of the world," as he called it.

"If I were the king of the mountain, that's what I would do," Lance told one irritated constituent in a phone call.

Lance, a former minority leader in the New Jersey State Senate, knows a thing or two about leadership, and he's not in the business of criticizing House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, on strategy.

But it's hard to hide the frustration that this crisis has essentially merged with the debate over another looming deadline Congress now faces in fewer than 10 days: the debt limit.

Lance might be willing to horse trade over resolving a government shutdown, but the prospect of default rankles.

"Regardless of whether it's that date or a day earlier or three or four days later, there is a real deadline at some point and I certainly think we should pay our bills, pay all of our bills and pay all of our bills on time," Lance said.

"On time," he said again and again for emphasis. "On time."

Another frustration: business at the Capitol has all but ground to a halt.

The committee meetings where the lion's share of Congress's work is usually conducted aren't being held. And there are few aides to hold them.

Four members of Lance's staff are still furloughed. Interns can fill holes by answering phones, but they can't take on the work that will pile up until the shutdown has ended.

Lance walked into a meeting with the Energy and Commerce staff Tuesday afternoon for an update on a bipartisan piece of legislation that would permanently fix a broken formula the government uses to reimburse Medicare doctors (commonly referred to as "doc fix"), which is likely to get held up by the pressing government shutdown and debt-limit issues.

Standing in an empty Energy and Commerce Committee room, where his is a member and a subcommittee vice chairman, Lance can't stop emphasizing that one of the most powerful committees in Congress is out of commission while the shutdown is in place.

"Very often this committee operates in a very bipartisan way and I just can't wait to get back to committee," Lance said, his words echoing off the walls of a barren chamber.

"The committee would be in session this week except for the shutdown and I want to make sure that it's up and running as quickly as possible because we do important bipartisan work in this committee and often it's not reported because what we do is step by step to try to benefit the American people."

He and others like him are stuck between a rock and hard place on the government shutdown.

On the one hand, Lance voted in unison with his colleagues for Republican-backed proposals that would tie government funding to a defunding of Obama's health care law, or a delay in the law's signature provision, the individual mandate.

On the other hand, he a few Democrats and Republicans, led by Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., and Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., met over lunch Tuesday to strategize a "mainstream" resolution to the whole thing.

But for what they possess in bipartisan good feeling, they lack in action, or perhaps just a game plan on which they can all agree.

"We just sort of talk, no resolution, no decision about how we're going to move forward," Lance said.

As for moving forward together, "There's talk about that," he added.

"Why don't we together move forward? I think there's a variety of opinions."