House GOP strategy: A referendum on Obama

J. Scott Applewhite/AP - House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, joined by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Va., talks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012, following a GOP strategy session.

Girding for President Obama’s effort to paint them as an obstacle to recovery, House Republicans have crafted a minimalist agenda that is designed to turn the November elections into a referendum on the White House’s stewardship of the economy.

In advance of Tuesday’s State of the Union address, Republicans began laying the blame for prolonged joblessness at Obama’s feet, sticking in large part to the script that was so successful in the 2010 midterm elections that thrust them into the majority.

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“Listen, this election’s going to be a referendum on the president’s economic policies,” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters Tuesday morning.

This strategy, however, comes as Obama has gained some traction in recent months with key independent voters on economic issues by focusing the debate on how the jobs plan he unveiled last September was blocked on Capitol Hill, particularly by Boehner’s conservative GOP conference in the House.

Since last fall, after a bruising spring and summer of trying to negotiate grand bargains with Boehner, the president has been railing against GOP congressional leaders both for blocking his agenda and for what he calls “you’re-on-your-own economics.” This month, Obama began a new phase of confrontation with House and Senate Republicans by granting recess appointments to nominees for agency posts connected to regulating Wall Street and labor unions, despite parliamentary maneuvers by Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) meant to impede such moves.

Obama is expected to continue blaming Republicans at Tuesday’s joint session, during which, aides and lawmakers said, he will reiterate support for jobs proposals he has offered in the past and include some provisions that have received previous support from congressional Republicans. “Are they going to be willing to put country before party and work with the president to get some things done? Our hope is that they will do that; it’s what the country expects,” White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said Tuesday morning on Fox News.

Over the last week congressional Republicans returned to the Capitol after a year of brinksmanship battles on fiscal matters, each ending with a compromise that deflated the giddy sense of expectations a year ago when they took charge of the House.

The year ended amid cross-Capitol shouting among House and Senate Republicans over the plan to temporarily extend the payroll tax holiday — the only major piece of Obama’s jobs bill that was enacted, albeit for just two months.

As the overall approval of Congress is at historic lows, the Republicans on Capitol Hill also find themselves in a perilous state. Last April, 34 percent of Americans approved of their performance in Congress, statistically equal with Democrats. This month, their support fell to just 21 percent, according to a Washington Post-ABC News Poll, as Democrats remained at 33 percent approval from voters.

This left GOP leaders trying to reassure their rank-and-file lawmakers, during a three-day policy retreat in Baltimore last week, that some small change had been enacted last year.

“We have begun to change the way business is done here in this town. It has not been easy, and I think that the incremental nature of the progress is what frustrates so many on our side of the aisle,” House Majority Leader Eric I. Cantor (R-Va.) told reporters Monday.

Annual spending is down — in 2012 federal agencies will spend more than $100 billion less than Obama originally proposed — but many of the rank-and-file Republicans yearn to complete the dramatic overhaul of the federal government crafted last spring by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). That plan would have reduced agency spending levels to where they were in 2008 and dramatically recast entitlement programs, including offering private options for Medicare.

Even though Democrats railed against the plan and the Senate never took up the proposal, Ryan told House Republicans in Baltimore that he expected to craft another bold proposal this year. However, as leaders did with other issues, he tamped down any expectation of enacting his proposals into law, instead suggesting that he would create a “referendum about the American idea” for next fall’s elections.

“We would love to see if some of the ideas we have passed, to create jobs and growth in this country, can actually pass [the Senate] and we’re gonna strive for that. But at the end of the day, we’re going to kick this thing upstairs to the American people and let them decide,” the Budget Committee chairman told reporters.

Cantor acknowledged Monday that Republicans need to do a better job of explaining to conservative voters that they need to turn out again in November to sweep in GOP Senate candidates and elect a Republican to the White House. “There is not a willing partner here, and that’s a story that we’re going to have to tell: We’ve begun to change, we need willing partners to help us continue on that change,” he said.

That’s why so much of the GOP agenda for the next 10 months is about holding up a political mirror to Obama, trying to expose any failures of his administration. Boehner has instructed his committee chairmen to expedite all oversight investigations of the administration to highlight any policies or regulations that have hindered the economy.

“Listen, the president’s policies have made our economy worse. We’ve had 35 straight months with unemployment over 8 percent,” Boehner said Tuesday. “Gas prices have doubled over the course of this administration. And the president’s policies, again, are just going to double down on what hasn’t worked.”

 
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