February 5, 2013

Eric Cantor is set to give a big speech today offering a new direction for the Republican Party. It’s expected to be mostly rhetorical in nature and to avoid any ideological moderation of the party’s core positions.

It’s fitting, then, that literally moments before this alleged “rebranding” speech, GOP leaders have given three public statements that underscore the party’s inability, or unwillingness, to budge in a meaningful way on three of the most pressing ideological battles of the moment: Taxes, immigration, and guns.

First, taxes. The news just broke that President Obama will ask for a temporary deferment of the sequester this afternoon, to avoid deep spending cuts that could cripple the recovery. Obama wants a mix of new revenues and cuts to be part of any long term solution, but here’s Boehner’s response:

“President Obama first proposed the sequester and insisted it become law.  Republicans have twice voted to replace these arbitrary cuts with common-sense cuts and reforms that protect our national defense.  We believe there is a better way to reduce the deficit, but Americans do not support sacrificing real spending cuts for more tax hikes.  The president’s sequester should be replaced with spending cuts and reforms that will start us on the path to balancing the budget in 10 years.”

First of all, if John Boehner believes that we can achieve substantial deficit reduction with spending cuts alone, then perhaps he should specify those cuts. Second of all, polls show that Americans do support additional revenues from the wealthy to avert deep spending cuts to core social programs. Right now, the cuts-versus-revenues ratio is still lopsided in favor of the GOP: Dems agreed to $1.5 trillion in cuts in 2011; Republicans agreed to $600 billion in new revenues in 2012. Until Republicans are willing to accept something even close to genuine, one-to-one compromise, and drop their lockstep opposition to any new revenues from the rich, the GOP’s agenda on one of the core ideological questions of the moment — how big should government be, and who should pay for it — remains unchanged. Strike one for the “rebranding.”

Now, immigration. Today Boehner declined to endorse the path to citizenship provision in the Senate proposal. Now, in one sense, this is sort of a step forward, because Boehner didn’t slam the door on the idea or rule it out entirely, as many on the right would like to see. And in fairness to Boehner, this might amount to a subtle strategy to move the GOP caucus slowly forward to a place where some Republicans could eventually embrace a Senate compromise that includes a path to citizenship. That said, Boehner did underscore that it would be “very difficult” for House Republicans to support such a provision, which means the party simply isn’t ready to embrace real immigration reform. Strike two for the “rebranding.”

Finally, guns. Here there is a bit more cause for optimism, but only a bit. CNN reports that Cantor told the network’s Dana Bash that he could support reforming the background check system to emulate what was done in Virginia. But it’s unclear how much this means; if you read Cantor’s quotes, all he’s really saying is that he supports improving the quality of information the national data base gets under the current background check regime. What he said does not amount to a call for expanding the background check system into something approaching a universal background check. Indeed, Cantor explicitly said he supports “making sure that we increase the quality of information in the database that is in existence already.”

Eventually there may be real movement on guns, and perhaps on immigration, but so far today, that’s three strikes for the “rebranding.” No meaningful movement in the House on three of the most pressing and ideologically charged issues facing the country right now.

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UPDATE: Sahil Kapur reports from today’s House hearing on immigration reform that Republicans are harshly dismissing the idea of a path to citizenship, with House Judiciary Committee chair Bob Goodlatte even dismissing it as “extreme.” Yet more evidence that we’re seeing no meaningful movement.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.