As shutdown polarizes Washington, Matheson sides with GOP
Politics • Matheson has voted against his party on health-care law, other key bills.
Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo
U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, says he's the kind of centrist politician who reflects Utah values.
Washington • Utah Rep. Jim Matheson, who represents the most conservative congressional district in the country held by a Democrat , has found himself in a tough spot as the government stared down, and then entered, the first closure in nearly 18 years.
He’s been voting with Republicans.
While Matheson has backed his party on many procedural votes during the budget impasse, he’s supported GOP measures to block money for the Affordable Care Act, delay the health care bill, and — as the shutdown stuck — adopt piecemeal budgets to fund popular items like national parks, veterans benefits and scientific research — moves that nearly all Democrats have opposed.
In many votes, he’s one of a handful of Democrats on the GOP’s side at a time when both parties have dug in along rigid ideological lines .
“Obviously that is a positive sign so far,” said his Utah Republican colleague, Rep. Rob Bishop. “Why doesn’t he complete the conversation and come on over? It’d be a lot easier for him.”
But Matheson says his votes reflect who he is: a congressman who doesn’t abide by partisan labels and one who is just pushing to reopen government.
“I don’t vote with a party; none of us are supposed to do that,” Matheson said. “We’re supposed to be representatives. ... In this case, we’ve had a number of votes of ‘do we keep the government running or not?’ and I felt strongly that we should. This isn’t voting with or against a particular party in any way; it’s just trying to represent what my constituents want, which is [that] they don’t want the government shut down.”
Outside the lines • Since coming to Congress in 2001, Matheson has always been willing to cross party lines on tough votes. He opposed the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, in 2010, but backed President Barack Obama’s stimulus package in 2009.
“There’s nothing different about this period of time than during my entire tenure in Congress, quite frankly,” Matheson said.
The shutdown, though, has shown how polarized Washington is now, and how few members of Congress will buck their own party.
The GOP has pushed legislation to tie a government budget bill to stripping funding from , or delaying, the health care law better known as Obamacare — a demand Democrats have rejected over and over.
Most Senate votes on the budget impasse have broken exactly along party lines and most House votes largely have followed.
In the days leading up to the government closure, Matheson joined Rep. Mike McIntyre, a Democrat from a rural North Carolina district, in backing Republicans to first slash any funding for implementing Obamacare and then to delay the law for a year.
As the shutdown hit, 20 to 30 Democrats later joined the duo in supporting GOP legislation to open select, popular parts of government.
Utah + Matheson • Matheson’s voting pattern is one of the reasons he enjoys a high favorability in Utah, according to polls. A recent survey by Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy showed some 58 percent of Utahns have a favorable approval rating of him.
It showed that Matheson has a higher favorability with independent voters than those who identify as strong Democrats.
And it also gave a 52 percent approval rating for Matheson among Utah Republicans.
“He’s at risk of alienating his own party and that’s drawn a challenge from the left in the past,” said Quin Monson, the center’s director, “but I don’t think he has any alternative, or that the Democratic Party has any alternative if they want to keep his seat.”
Matheson faced a challenge from the left in 2010 by Claudia Wright, who argued Matheson didn’t represent the Democratic Party.
On Thursday, former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson tweeted that Matheson calls himself a Democrat, but votes like he’s a tea partyer.
“Dems should dump him out of fundamental principle. Winning isn’t everything!” said Anderson, who left the Democratic Party and ran for president on the Justice Party ticket.
Jim Dabakis, the Utah Democratic Party chairman and a state senator, says Matheson is the antidote to the extremists now found in Congress.
“He is the least ideological guy I know,” Dabakis said. “He’s a guy who recognizes that there’s a need for compromise. He’s the first one at the table, and he’s ready to make things work.”
Matheson says he votes on the legislation before him, not based on political strategy, and in the GOP-run House, that’s included bills that would fund the government and change the health-care law, moves that Matheson says he supports.
“This isn’t voting with or against a particular party in any way,” Matheson said, “it’s just trying to represent what my constituents want, which is [that] they don’t want the government shut down and I’ve done my best to keep it going.”
Republicans say they welcome his votes.
“I’m glad to see a united, bipartisan delegation,” said Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican. “I think [Matheson has] been getting most of these votes right.”
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