Big and bold or small and safe? For Republicans, that is the question.

FILE - This Jan. 28, 2014 file photo shows House John Boehner of Ohio, accompanied by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Va. speaking at Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington. House Republican leaders challenged President Barack Obama on Thursday to override the opposition of the Senate's top Democrat and help pass trade legislation the administration favors. "The president ought to stand up and lead on this issue," House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said at a news conference at a two-day retreat for members of the party's rank-and-file. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
House John Boehner of Ohio, left, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor  at Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington on Jan. 28. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

CAMBRIDGE, Md. – House Republicans find themselves in a stunning place: They’re trying to decide just how much offense they want to play.

In the past 13 months they have driven the Treasury twice to the edge of a default on the federal debt, they pushed for a 16-day shutdown of the federal government, and in return they got little that their conservative base is cheering these days.

Yet, Republicans gathered here on this resort hamlet on Maryland’s Eastern Shore for the party's annual retreat are not the least bit fearful of losing the majority in November and one senior lawmaker guaranteed a net gain.

“Oh, I think we will pick up seats, “ Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told reporters. He said the Democrats do not have enough seats in play to pick up the fewer than 20 seats they expect to need to claim the majority, and moreover,  conservative voters angry at President Obama’s health-care law are the most energized in advance of what is expected to be a low-turnout election.

“The long and the short of it is, the field is narrower, the intensity is higher,” Walden said.

Which has left House Speaker John A. Boehner’s leadership team with a conundrum: go big and bold in the next six to eight months, pushing a contentious immigration system overhaul and advancing a GOP alternative to “Obamacare”? Or craft some simple, basic measures that appeal to a few key blocs of voters, running out the clock on Democrats and padding their majority?

There is little doubt among the rank-and-file Republicans about which direction to go.

“It’s essential that we’re the party of solutions. We have to have an alternative,” said Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.), who took office in June after winning a special election, of his hope that leadership pushes a comprehensive health-care alternative.

“Be bold and not paint pastel colors,” said Rep. Marlin A. Stutzman (R-Ind.), part of the historic class of 2010. Playing it safe would only further alienate voters who have a trust deficit with both parties, Stutzman said. “Then it looks like we're hiding.”

That’s all easier said then done.

In a 20-minute news conference Thursday morning, Boehner and his entire leadership team ducked almost every possible question about the agenda.

“We're going to have a conservation today about the way forward,” Boehner said about possible health-care proposals. He hit that same refrain  regarding what his demands would be for approving an increase in the debt ceiling for Treasury to continue to finance government operations, on immigration overhauls and on proposals to reform the tax code.

Boehner has learned that rallying enough votes from within House Republicans – currently holding 232 seats, needing 217 for a majority on their own – has proven almost impossible on big items.

Pushing bold initiatives may expose Boehner’s members to politically difficult votes in advance of the November elections, or worse yet, reignite deep policy divisions within the GOP caucus and weaken the speaker’s already loose hold on the reins of power.

Boehner’s advisers are adamant that he is looser and more comfortable than at any moment in his three-year run as speaker, and any viewer of Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” saw that last week when Boehner made wisecracks with the soon-departing king of late-night talk. Capitol insiders saw it in mid-December when the speaker lashed out at outside conservative groups that have made his life miserable by opposing anything that is less than pure conservative.

Part of this confidence came out of the throes of the shutdown, in which the far right corner of the caucus effectively was given control of the show. The strategy flopped miserably, but those conservatives felt they had been given a chance, and the more mainstream conservatives came away from the episode more appreciative of the good governance style of Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric I. Cantor (R-Va.).

“We still have to govern,” Smith said, explaining that he now appreciates the views of his GOP lawmakers from swing seats. He represents a district that tilts 17 percentage points toward Republicans.

Still, all these good vibes could splinter on any sensitive issue.

Immigration is particularly tricky. For all of Smith’s talk of being bold on health care, he does not support a leadership approach that would allow for illegal immigrants to be granted legal status if they meet a host of requirements, suggesting that even though that stopped short of giving them full citizenship it was effectively the same.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) said he wasn’t concerned about when an immigration debate occurred and said the party should lean into the issue. “I'll just do the right thing at the right time,” he said.

Walden, tasked with protecting and growing the majority, tried to split the difference. He was adamant that Republicans push alternatives – “you need something positive to run on” — but left it up to the media to determine whether those alternatives were in fact “bold.”

“If we’re just seen as the opposition party, and we spend all our time talking about what we're opposed to, we miss a great opportunity to actually woo voters over to our side, because frankly, we have really good alternatives. We're developing and fleshing those out here,” he said.

Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
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