Congressman reviews peers via 'Lincoln'

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A delicious moment in the film "Lincoln" comes when a Pennsylvania congressman tells a handful of party purists, "Gentlemen, you seem to have forgotten that our chosen career is politics."

The Pennsylvania congressman sitting next to me chuckled at that.

U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, the veteran Forest Hills Democrat, went to the movies at my request Monday afternoon, a day before heading back to Washington. Events on the screen were far more momentous than the crisis du jour; passing a constitutional amendment to end slavery in the final months of the Civil War trumps any "fiscal cliff."

Yet there were similarities: a re-elected president using his mandate to push his plan through a reluctant Congress, a tight winter deadline and voting math that doesn't bode well for easy passage.

A 2 1/2-hour movie on passing legislation shouldn't be this good, but Daniel Day-Lewis was so masterful as Abraham Lincoln that Mr. Doyle didn't even mind that Democrats were decidedly the bad guys. This slice of history should remind all that reaching even the noblest goals sometimes means letting purity give way to pragmatism, and that we needn't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Mr. Doyle and I talked later about how his 18 years in Congress have contrasted with the four-month swatch from 1865. I wondered how many members, catching this film over the Thanksgiving break, might be primed to hit the House floor hurling scathing invectives like their 19th century brethren.

"Everyone probably envisions some member they'd like to do that to," Mr. Doyle, 59, said of the personal attacks depicted in the film, but today's rules don't even allow House members to address each other directly.

Another difference is 24/7 media attention. Mr. Lincoln's purposeful dawdling on peace negotiations with the Confederates until passage of the constitutional abolition of slavery -- that would be dissected and fricasseed today anywhere there was ink or a sound signal.

"People know more than they've ever known. They know intimate details that they've never known before because of this,'' Mr. Doyle said, holding up his smart phone.

Not that everything we know is right. He says that 80 to 90 percent of House members get along or even like one another. He also thinks the so-called fiscal cliff is more sloped than most realize. We are, after all, talking about avoiding mandatory tax increases and spending cuts by coming up with a different package of tax increases and spending cuts. That wouldn't make much of a movie.

"When you're voting on the 13th Amendment to the Constitution to abolish slavery, it's hard to parallel that with anything I've done in my life,'' the congressman said.

Perhaps the most controversial vote he ever cast was against the war with Iraq. He never bought the argument that the U.S. was in any immediate danger from weapons of mass destruction and, with his three sons then in their 20s, "it didn't seem right to me to send other people's kids to fight a war that I didn't think we should be in.''

His solidly Democratic district, nearly half of which is the city of Pittsburgh, is a safe seat if ever there was one. Mr. Doyle is no ideologue, but he says he's "a purist in the sense that I do what I want to do.''

Unlike Lincoln's allies, he's never been able to offer federal jobs in exchange for votes. He helped President Barack Obama get the last seven votes for what everyone now calls Obamacare by bringing a dozen or so wavering members into a room and talking them through their concerns. "It came down to personal relationships and trust.''

He supports the president now, too, in raising the tax rates on income earned above $250,000. Like that other lanky former Illinois state legislator in 1865, this president can argue his stance has been validated by his re-election.

Wall Street may decide otherwise, but Mr. Doyle doesn't think a budget deal has to be ratified before the end of the year. If there's bipartisan agreement on a framework, that should do. Republican House Speaker John Boehner is an honorable guy whose word on any deal would satisfy the Democrats, Mr. Doyle said.

"We're going to be there until we do something. We've been told to not make any plans until Christmas Eve."

As the movie suggests, no two members have to agree to a deal for the same reasons, but "people have a sense of timing and history," Mr. Doyle said. "There are certain times when you know it's time to do it, to take the stand and fight the fight."


Brian O'Neill: or 412-263-1947.


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