For 2014 midterm elections, Republicans may lower their sights


House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), left, joined by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) talks to reporters following a GOP strategy session at the Capitol in November. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
December 5, 2013

Coming to the end of a year that has bitterly divided their caucus, House Republicans are grappling with how bold they should be in shaping a legislative agenda for 2014.

Some want a modest approach focusing on oversight of the Affordable Care Act, while others are pushing for a broad alternative to President Obama’s health-care plan, hoping that it would stand as evidence of a positive GOP agenda heading into next year’s midterm elections. Some believe that a jobs agenda is critical, while others want to craft unique proposals related to education and poverty.

The sprawling set of issues has only one common denominator: avoiding some of the self-
inflicted wounds that cost them so dearly in recent election seasons. One clear indication of the cautious mind-set came Thursday when House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) acknowledged that he is helping to train Republicans in how to deal with female challengers next year, so that they can avoid some of the offensive remarks of GOP candidates in years past.

“Some of our members just aren’t as sensitive as they ought to be,” Boehner said.

And across their ideological spectrum, House Republicans now say that they want to avoid shutting down the federal government and other blunders that Democrats could turn against them in the election year.

Young people aren’t signing up for Obamacare health exchanges, a new poll shows. Aaron Blake explains why this is a holiday present for the Republican Party. (The Washington Post)

“Look, we don’t want to be the obstructionists,” Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), who in October refused to vote to keep the government open if it funded the health-care law, said Wednesday in an interview.

Massie is one of many aggressive conservatives lowering expectations for next year, embracing the realization that their effort to shut down the government as an attack on the ACA was a strategic failure. He is now ready to pass a funding resolution for the rest of 2014 with those health-care funds in it to avoid another political pitfall.

“I’m ready to go with existing law on budget, so that shows you where my expectations are, and I think it’s the best way to avoid a shutdown,” Massie said.

The 2014 agenda is still several weeks away from being formally crafted, which typically occurs in late January at the annual issues retreat. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) has already begun holding meetings with GOP lawmakers to try to figure out which items need attention and which need to be on the back burner. An election year almost always brings an extra layer of political sensitivity, and history suggests that the midterm election in year six of a presidency is troublesome for the party of the commander in chief. That, combined with Obama’s falling approval ratings from the troubled rollout of the federal health-care Web site, has some Republicans envisioning pickups next November.

That is in stark contrast to mid-October, when Republicans feared their majority might be in jeopardy because the public was so outraged by the shutdown. Some are cautioning against any new, big proposals that might give Democrats an opportunity to distract from the health-care quagmire by targeting new GOP proposals.

“It may be politically prudent to do nothing,” said Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), who comes from the establishment wing of the Republican conference. But Nunes said there was a “responsibility” to be more than just against the ACA, a sentiment that was echoed by a cross-section of Republicans.

“We need to have the Republican alternative. You’ve got to be for something,” said Rep. Mike Simpson (Idaho), a close Boehner ally. “We’ve laid it out with a lot of individual bills. I think it’s time to put it altogether,” said Rep. Steve Scalise (La.), chairman of an influential conservative caucus.

At a minimum, Massie suggested a monthly exercise of voting to repeal the health-care law, often called Obamacare, and pairing it with one of the alternative GOP plans, such as allowing for insurance exchanges across state lines to drive competition.

This places many of the rank-and-file members ahead of the leadership in terms of how aggressive to position the party heading into the 2014 midterm elections. Boehner demurred when asked Thursday about offering a full-scale alternative plan and how bold the agenda would be.

“Protecting the American people from Obamacare will be another priority,” he said, citing the economy and job creation as his “number one focus.”

There is deep hesitation in trying to push a bold agenda that would include a full-blown alternative health-care plan, particularly since the House Republican conference was so riddled with factions this year that it failed to pass even the most basic pieces of legislation.

Early this year, Cantor rolled out a “Making Life Work” agenda that was meant to appeal to kitchen-table issues. After a couple of items were approved, the agenda ran aground when Cantor tried in the spring to pass a bill that would have ensured that those with preexisting health conditions would get insurance and another that would have increased cancer research for children.

Without Democratic support and dozens of conservatives rebelling, Cantor’s legislation foundered. Next week, seven months after first unveiling the “Kids First” bill to fight cancer, he has scheduled a floor vote on the measure.

If it is that hard to unify the GOP around fighting cancer in children, many Republican advisers fear that crafting a full alternative to the ACA will be impossible and merely lead to more divisions.

Boehner declined to say whether that immigration legislation, which also has bitterly divided his conference, would get an airing in the House next year.

Ultimately, the first order of business for next year is turning into the last agenda item of 2013.

Republicans want to resolve government funding by the time they break next Friday for the holiday season. The House is slated to return Jan. 6 with only a few days before current funding authority expires Jan. 15, and the GOP consensus has been that lawmakers do not want the specter of another shutdown hanging over their heads throughout the holidays at home.

The funding issue could be worked out within a negotiation of the House and Senate budget committee chairs, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who have next Friday as a deadline to hash out a small budget deal that would set new spending limits for this fiscal year and next.

If that occurs, Boehner expects to pass the bill on a bipartisan vote by the end of next week with the Senate following suit. It would make a government shutdown highly unlikely through 2015 and set a framework for “regular order,” in which the appropriations committees in each chamber could consider their spending bills in a timely fashion.

Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
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