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Remarks to Reporters Following a Meeting With Representative Eugene V. Atkinson of Pennsylvania

October 14, 1981

The President. Representative McDade, Secretary Drew Lewis, and the guest for the occasion, Eugene Atkinson:

I've invited you here today for what I think is an historic occasion, to welcome the 193d and newest Republican Member of the House of Representatives—the Honorable Eugene Atkinson of Pennsylvania.

Congressman Atkinson is changing his registration from Democrat to Republican. He's undertaken an act of outstanding political courage that symbolizes the beginning of a new coalition and a new era in American politics. As many of you know, Gene and I first became acquainted April 21st, when I telephoned him seeking support for the Gramm-Latta budget proposal. And I put on my best pitch on the telephone and then he said to me, "I am fully supportive of your programs." And it was then that I discovered that they had put the call through to him where he was the guest on a talk show, on radio, and he was doing this before a live radio audience, and my call had caught him there. Since then, we've gotten to know each other much better.

I've profited immeasurably from Gene's knowledge of the steel industry, which is so vitally important to the working men and women of his 25th district in Pennsylvania. In another sense, Gene and I actually go back well before last April, as his odyssey from Democrat to Republican is so strikingly parallel to my own.

Both Gene and I have long shared the same concerns for the plight of the working man in America. I was president of a labor union, while Gene lived and worked his entire life in an area that embodies the blue collar wage earner as much as anywhere in the United States. As Democrats, both Gene and I did the hard volunteer chores for the candidates of our choice. But as the time went on, we both came to the realization that our party, the party we belonged to, had drawn away from the concerns that we shared—the size of the Federal Government, the extent of its regulations, the nature of Federal income taxes and how they affect America's wage earners, and the decline of America's defenses. Those were the concerns uppermost in my mind in 1962, when I ended 30 years as a registered Democrat to join the Republican Party.

Those are the concerns that have led Gene Atkinson to do so today. In both eases, we followed the courage of action characterized so eloquently by Winston Churchill: "Some men change principle for party and some men change party for principle." More than any other recent development, I believe that Gene Atkinson's decision will send a loud and clear message to America that our party, the Republican Party, stands for the working men and women of this country. And that's why Gene is here today.

And now, Congressman Gene Atkinson, Republican of Pennsylvania.

Representative Atkinson. Thank you very much, Mr. President. I appreciate your kind words, and I also value the friendship that we've established and which you spoke of here today. I also appreciate the support of my good friends, Secretary Drew Lewis, and my colleague, the chairman of the Pennsylvania delegation, Joseph McDade.

You know, Mr. President, throughout my 20 years in public life, I've always been a Democrat. I have served as a Federal Government official, a county commissioner, and now as a United States Congressman from the 25th District of Pennsylvania. I've also served as Democratic county chairman and as a member of the Pennsylvania Democratic State Committee.

The modern Democratic Party bears no resemblance to the one I proudly joined many years ago, a party that stood for tax cuts and a national defense second to none. I'm not in tune with the modern Democratic Party which has, in my view, left behind the principles upon which it was founded-Jefferson's concept of less government and Jackson's idea of a party by and for the working men.

I do not put party labels on the President nor on programs. I think that's meaningless. What counts is purpose, and what counts is performance. It's encouraging to me, Mr. President, that a true effort is being made to reduce Federal spending and curb runaway inflation.

Mr. President, Republicans and Democrats and Independents alike know of your commitment to the working men and women of America, who have been hit hardest by the tremendous impact of runaway spending and the high cost of living. That's why I voted down the line to support the budget programs and the tax cuts contained in your economic recovery program.

It's interesting to note that the House Democratic Caucus recently granted amnesty to those Congressmen who voted their convictions. It is painful that those of us who speak our minds and vote our conscience are now forgiven for these sins by the Democratic Caucus. I resent them granting me amnesty and the veiled threat that to continue to vote independently could cause a loss of seniority in committee assignments. How can Members of Congress across the Nation determine how I should vote?

Again, Mr. President, I am honored to join with you, for we share the same hopes and concerns for America. We have both lived the American dream and want a nation that is strong, that is prosperous, and that is free—for our children and for future generations. I will work with you to do for our Nation what President Kennedy, who first appointed me to public office, started to do, and that's to get America moving again.

It's a pleasure to be with you today, Mr. President. I respect you very much. I look forward to working with you as a Republican Member of the United States Congress.

The President. Gene, thank you very much. Thank you.

Secretary Lewis. I really have no comments. As a former politician from Pennsylvania, now public servant, I welcome, you, Gene, to the Republican Party.

Representative Atkinson. Thank you, Drew.

Representative McDade. Mr. President, and our newest Republican from Pennsylvania, I certainly want to express my thanks to Gene on behalf of the entire delegation and of the people of the United States.

I should say I have a personal reason for thanking him, because his switch of voting today makes me chairman of the Pennsylvania delegation rather than ranking member. [Laughter] So, we're especially delighted. I've known Gene. I'm delighted to see his act of courage toward making this Nation what we all want it to be—more prosperous, stronger, better for the men and women of America, who work everyday in the factories to make this a great nation.

We look forward to working together, and on behalf of the Pennsylvania delegation, we welcome our newest member, Gene Atkinson.

The President. I have to go back in and go to work, and this is my way of telling you that these gentlemen have graciously agreed to stay here for a few moments for any questions that you might have, and you can direct them to them.

Reporter. Do you think you'll win AWACS, Mr. President? [Laughter]

The President. I have to go back to work, and what I have to go back to work on is AWACS. [Laughter] I'm cautiously optimistic.

Q. Mr. President, the House is saying no on AWACS today.

The President. Well, that was expected. We knew that. But it takes both Houses to say no.

Q. Can you win in the Senate?

The President. Ask them.

Note: The President spoke at 1:45 p.m. in the Rose Garden at the White House. Following the President's return to the Oval Office, Representatives McDade and Atkinson answered reporters' questions. The transcript of the question-and-answer session is included in the White House press release.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks to Reporters Following a Meeting With Representative Eugene V. Atkinson of Pennsylvania Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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