As GOP waits for dust to settle, party leaders sharpen case for reelection

Watching with growing unease as the GOP presidential nomination fight promises to stretch into the spring, Republican leaders on Capitol Hill are making moves to protect their own reelection prospects in the fall.

The aim is to fashion a political and legislative agenda to sharpen the party’s case against President Obama and Democrats, and make a coherent argument for why the Democratic-controlled Senate, and not the GOP-led House, is to blame for the congressional gridlock that has disheartened the public. A side benefit is that the legislative strategy might shift public attention away from some of the social issues that have recently dominated their party’s presidential contest.

Graphic

Mitt Romney’s support is strongest in the largest, wealthiest counties, and in Democratic strongholds.
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Mitt Romney’s support is strongest in the largest, wealthiest counties, and in Democratic strongholds.

While most congressional leaders continue to believe that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney will be the nominee, they worry about how long it will take to secure the nomination and the political costs of a drawn-out battle.

“Every day that goes by [without a nominee] is a day that plays to President Obama’s advantage,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has endorsed Romney and was the party’s 2008 standard-bearer.

While GOP leaders are eager for a nominee to emerge so they can begin a coordinated campaign against the Democrats, they are increasingly convinced that they must move ahead with an agenda of their own.

Last week, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said that regardless of who the nominee is and when he assumes the role, the core of the GOP argument against the president will be the same.

“Listen, one thing is clear here,” Boehner said Thursday. “ . . . This year’s election is going to be a referendum on the president’s economic policies. . . . The American people are concerned about our economy and concerned about jobs, and that’s going to continue to be my focus.”

And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has sketched out what a joint agenda should look like. “ ‘Obamacare’ should be the number one issue in the campaign,” McConnell told the Weekly Standard. “I think it’s the gift that keeps on giving.” The other top issues, as McConnell sees them, should be the deficit and national debt.

Bread-and-butter topics

One main concern going forward, key Hill Republicans say, is to avoid falling into more social-issue debates, which have hurt the broader party image and could affect down-ballot races for the House and Senate.

“To the extent that the focus in this cycle is on the economy, it’s better for Republicans. I think that’s probably where the stronger case for Republican change can be made,” said Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.), who managed presidential hopeful Rick Santorum’s 1994 campaign for the Senate but remains neutral in the presidential race. “I think we’re stronger when we’re talking about economics.”

The result is a congressional party determined to show action on bread-and-butter issues that can serve as the core of a unified economic agenda.

“We’ve got plenty of things to worry about here in the House. We’ve got a transportation bill, we’ve got Iran, we’ve got debt and deficit,” said Rep. Allen B. West (R-Fla.). “ Whatever happens with the presidential race will happen with the presidential race. People sent me up here to focus on being a good congressional representative, not worrying about being a cheerleader in a food fight.”

House Republicans will move legislation later this month to repeal a key portion of Obama’s health-care law, days ahead of the Supreme Court’s oral arguments on the legislation. Next week, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is expected to unveil a budget proposal that will slash federal spending and stick closely to last year’s controversial proposal to alter Medicare with private options. Both of these efforts could flow seamlessly into whatever coordinated effort emerges once there is a nominee.

But, while it is widely acknowledged that tax reform will be a key point of argument in the fall campaign, Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, said last week that he will not wait to for a presidential nominee decide how to move ahead on the issue.

“I’m going to continue to do that regardless of when we get a nominee,” Camp said. “I’ve got an agenda that I’ve been working on for a year and a half, and I’m going to keep doing that.”

House Republicans had hoped to be able to take some of the presidential nominee’s proposals and offer them on the chamber floor, while Senate Republicans might use their rights to offer them as amendments. If the nomination fight lasts deep into the spring, there will be little to no time for such stage battles in Congress.

Hedging on health care

One area of legislative indecision has already emerged. While the House GOP is moving ahead with its health-care debate, Senate Republicans have not decided whether to push for another vote repealing the health-care law. Action in the Senate could shine a spotlight on what Republicans believe will be a key issue of the fall campaign, but another vote could also give embattled swing-state Democrats the chance to vote for repeal, bolstering their independent credentials.

There is deep division between House and Senate Republicans about the consequences of a long primary season. Some, like McCain, thinks it hurts Republicans. Others, including McCain’s close friend Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), say the lengthy process has made Romney a better candidate, who will benefit from having had to fight for the nomination.

GOP leaders had anticipated that Romney would wrap up the nomination by Super Tuesday, and they would then begin the routine cooperation in which the presidential candidate defines a daily message that members of Congress amplify. For the immediate future, they will have to wait on that.

Gingrich’s top ally in Congress, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), is trying to build support by arguing that his candidate can energize the base and give down-ballot candidates something to rally around. Barton says that when he first ran, in 1984 on the same ticket as Ronald Reagan and Phil Gramm, he linked his candidacy to the popular president and the Senate candidate from Texas.

“Everything I did was Reagan, Gramm, Barton. They didn’t know me. But they knew them,” he said.

Contraception debate

And lawmakers acknowledge that the GOP message got derailed in February, when the issue of contraceptive coverage in the health-care law consumed the presidential campaign. As the discussion focused on whether the federal government could compel institutions connected to the Catholic Church to cover contraception costs in insurance programs, Republicans thought they were on high ground, and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) introduced an amendment to allow exemptions.

Then when Santorum publicly declared his opposition to the use of contraceptives, the tables began to turn. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing on contraception, in which no women testified; the optics of that miscalculation were amplified by the politics of the presidential primary debate with adverse consequences for the GOP on the Hill.

Blunt, a key Romney backer, said that the other candidates in the race must decide how much longer they want to deprive Romney of the chance of assuming the mantle of the nominee. “They have to decide on their own that they’re no longer serving a positive purpose,” Blunt said.

Staff writer Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.

 
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