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GOP Struggles To Define Its Message for 2006 Elections

When asked last week whether Republicans had any broad visions to pursue this year, Boehner said, "Before the week is out, you will have a pretty good idea of what they are." But on Thursday night, after House members approved a $92 billion measure to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and ongoing hurricane relief, lawmakers left town for a week-long break with no agenda ready.

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), the vice chairman of the House Republican Conference, said Boehner has been preparing an agenda based on four "silos": national security, retirement security, economic security and energy. But Republicans will have a difficult time turning those broad themes into legislative accomplishments.

The central plank of the national security agenda is border security and a crackdown on illegal immigration. But Republicans are deeply divided between those who favor increased enforcement at borders vs. those, including the president, who want to couple those measures with a guest worker program that would offer avenues for lawful employment for those already here illegally.

Under the retirement security rubric, House leaders would like to see a restructuring of the private pension system and permanent repeal of the estate tax. The former is within reach, although its political appeal may be limited. The latter almost certainly would die in a Senate filibuster. Likewise, the centerpiece of economic security -- an extension of Bush's first-term tax cuts -- faces long odds in the Senate.

Because of these realities, Republicans have adopted a midterm strategy designed to avoid making the election a national referendum on their performance or one that focuses on their policy divisions. Their goal is to concentrate less on the kind of positive message they have challenged the Democrats to produce and more on framing a choice that says, however unhappy voters may be right now with the Republicans' leadership, things would be worse if Democrats were in charge.

"If you are someone who favors small government," Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said, "you're going to have a clear choice between someone who has cut taxes every year in office, who believes you ought to own your own health care . . . and who plans to cut the deficit over five years versus people who have consistently supported more spending, have opposed tax cuts and who oppose patients owning their own health care. The question is, who's on your side for reducing the size of government?"

Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, chided the Democrats last Thursday for not producing an agenda. But he insisted at the same time that such "inside-the-Beltway" debates will be of little consequence in November, when local issues will decide the closest congressional contests. "We have repeatedly guided our candidates: All politics are local," he said.

In the absence of a positive national message, Republicans also hope to use long-standing "wedge issues" to galvanize their own base and try to put Democrats on record with unpopular votes. Congressional leaders, for instance, plan to push a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin said that even some once-powerful weapons in the Republican political arsenal have less appeal today than in the past. "Whether it's taxes or moral conservatism or national security, there's nothing the Republicans have said or done in their experimenting with message that outweighs this overwhelming sense Americans have that President Bush has misled the country onto a negative path," he said.

Republican pollster David Winston said his party can find broad consensus on jobs and competitiveness, fighting terrorism and securing U.S. borders. "Those are the three big items," he said. "There is unanimity on those three. Once you get beyond those three, there may be different senses of direction."

Blunt said it is more important for Democrats to produce a governing agenda because Republicans have a record to run on. But he also said action this year is essential. "We are, after all, legislators," he said. "We need to be making something better, eliminating something or moving in a new direction."

Republicans have a list of prospective priorities. Whether many will become law is problematic, although that does not seem to worry GOP leaders such as Blunt. "We'd like to see them become law, but a vote lets the people know where we stand," he said.

One Republican strategist, who asked not to be identified so he could speak openly about the party's problems, said divisions between moderates and conservatives have left the House and Senate Republican conferences in disarray. "Getting consensus on policy matters . . . is very difficult," he said. "That has caused stagnation and led to perceptions that Republican governance is going nowhere."

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