“We don’t have 218 votes in the House for the big issues, so what else are we going to do?” said Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), an ally of House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio). “We can do a few things on immigration and work on our principles, but in terms of real legislating, we’re unable to get in a good negotiating position.”
Added Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster who works closely with party leaders: “It is an acknowledgment of where they stand, where nothing can happen in divided government so we may essentially have the status quo. Significant immigration reform and fundamental tax reform are probably not going to happen.”
GOP brass in both chambers have shifted their focus to stability, looking to avoid intraparty drama, rally behind incumbents and build Republicans’ ground game ahead of November’s midterm elections, where they hope to be competitive in a slew of Senate races and hold on to the party’s 17-seat House majority.
In that vein, championing a handful bills on job growth, energy and regulatory policy — all targeted at courting swing voters but unlikely to win Democratic support — has become a priority, with party leaders planning to spend months seeking consensus among Republicans and avoiding talks on controversial matters.
“It’s a natural progression,” said Republican Vin Weber, a former Minnesota congressman. “If you’re a Republican in Congress, you’ve learned that when we shut down the government, we lose. Now that we’ve had some success in avoiding another shutdown, our fortunes seem to be rising, so maybe we don’t want big things to happen.”
Republican leaders are also quite aware of voters’ skepticism about the GOP’s policies, and most believe that a softer sell, rather than an assertive attempt to pass major bills, is a smart play. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in January found that just 19 percent of Americans have confidence in congressional Republicans to make the right decisions for the country, while 80 percent do not.
In late January, House Republican leaders launched their small-ball strategy with a letter to President Obama after the State of the Union address, where they “identified four initial areas” of potential agreement — citing job creation, natural-gas development, workplace rules and federally funded research but few items that could cause unrest with the party’s powerful bloc of conservatives.
In an article published Thursday by the National Review, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) underscored the leadership’s approach. “While we will tackle many issues this year in Congress, we will focus on four key areas that demand our immediate attention,” he wrote, once again talking up Republican proposals on job growth and energy, as well as on education and tax policy.
Left unmentioned by Cantor: brokering a compromise on immigration reform and adjusting the federal minimum wage — two issues at the top of the agenda for Obama and congressional Democrats.
At a news conference last week, Boehner blamed Obama for the partisan tensions and criticized him for not responding to the GOP’s January letter. “We’ve seen no response from the president — nothing,” he said. “If the president won’t work with us on these simple issues, who would ever expect that he’d be able to work with us on the more complex issues that we face?”
This month, Boehner also threw cold water on the prospect of an immigration-reform package landing on the president’s desk this year.
“There’s widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws,” Boehner said. “And it’s going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes.”
This development on Capitol Hill — rarely articulated as an orchestrated slowdown beyond private huddles — is part of a push by GOP leaders to avoid sensational headlines and headaches. For example, many of them, including Boehner, would like to see aspects of immigration reform enacted. But because of party dynamics, they know it’s unlikely — and if pursued with any seriousness this spring, it could lead to a tea party rebellion.
At the House GOP’s annual retreat in January, Republicans spent most sessions discussing how to frame the party’s pitch to middle-class voters and get through the debate over suspending the debt ceiling. Influential voices, such as Boehner and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), devoted their speeches to the necessity of a united front and pressuring the president to support the Keystone XL pipeline, among other issues that could be helpful on the campaign trail.
The appetite there for anything resembling a grand bargain on immigration, taxes or health-care reform was nonexistent, according to several aides present, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the meetings were confidential.
On health care, Republicans will offer their own wholesale substitute for the Affordable Care Act in the spring or summer, making full repeal of the law a keystone of their election-year message.
Republican operatives said the GOP’s slowing pace is unsurprising, given the party’s internal squabbles and the usual pattern ahead of midterm elections, a period that has rarely provided moments for ambitious bipartisan legislating.
“There is clearly a desire among Republicans in Congress to move forward, and everyone is working through where they could find potentially find consensus,” said David Winston, a Republican strategist who advises Boehner. “But you’ve got to see where the differences are and try to resolve them, while staying focused on offering an alternative.”
In the meantime, avoiding unruly theatrics and trying to package the GOP as a ready-to-govern party is the leadership’s chief concern.
“We’re not going to make ourselves the story,” Boehner said in a speech to his colleagues Tuesday, before moving to pass a “clean” debt-ceiling extension — one without strings attached. A day later, as Senate Republicans openly battled during an hour-long vote on that legislation, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) echoed Boehner in a terse cloakroom talk during which he criticized the discord.
Democrats have seized on Republicans’ hesitancy to pursue hot-button issues, arguing that it is evidence of crippling division. On Friday, Vice President Biden, speaking at House Democrats’ retreat in Cambridge, Md., said, “There isn’t a Republican Party.”
“Between now and November is three political lifetimes,” Biden said. “The American people are where we are. And let’s go out and make every single effort not just to defend, but to aggressively push our agenda.”
But with the federal government’s borrowing authority extended through next year and a budget agreement already reached, many Republicans are comfortable with the turn toward campaigning and bills designed to bolster GOP candidates.
“It’s over, it’s finished after the debt ceiling,” Nunes said. “In the House, we’ve got 30 guys who don’t want to support anything, ever, unless it balances the budget next year.”