House Republicans make a conservative 'Pledge to America'

By Paul Kane and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 23, 2010; 11:00 AM

House Republicans on Thursday announced an expansive agenda called "A Pledge to America" that proposes to shrink the size of government and reform Congress, offering a conservative plan of action they will pursue if they win a majority in the midterm elections.

In a series of speeches at a hardware store in Sterling, Va., the GOP members of Congress attacked key elements of President Obama's domestic agenda and promised, among other things, to work for the repeal of his landmark health-care legislation and the permanent extension of tax cuts passed under the George W. Bush administration.

They also called for the honoring of "traditional marriage" and an end to "federal funding for abortion."

Answering questions after the speeches, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) described the pledge broadly as an effort to restore "fiscal sanity" to Washington. He said Republicans are promising to put the nation on a path to a balanced budget and to paying down the national debt.

"The federal government is too big, it spends too much, and it's out of control" Boehner said. He acknowledged that "when Republicans were in charge of Congress" during the Bush years, "we made our fair share of mistakes." But now, he said, after listening to the American people for the past 20 months, "we get it, we get it."

Under their plan, Republicans would slash $100 billion in government spending on nonmilitary agencies and replace Obama's landmark health-care legislation with a scaled-back version. Small businesses would be able to deduct from taxes up to 20 percent of their annual income, and the Pentagon would receive increased funding to more quickly implement a ballistic missile defense system.

The plan would also eliminate any unspent money from last year's $814 billion stimulus package and from legislation that authorized hundreds of billions of dollars to prop up failing Wall Street firms.

There are no specifics about how the spending cuts would be carried out, and the agenda does not outline how Republicans would deal with Social Security and other expensive federal entitlement programs, saying only that lawmakers "will make the decisions that are necessary" to cut costs.

The agenda is designed to give voters a broad outline of what proposals House Republicans will push if they regain the majority and to give their candidates specifics to cite on the campaign trail. It also aims to answer a favorite attack line of Democrats: that Republicans have no new ideas and are merely the "party of no."

"The need for urgent action to repair our economy and reclaim our government for the people cannot be overstated," Republicans write in the Pledge, according to a draft document released Wednesday night.

The proposals, many of which would face high hurdles to becoming law, even if Republicans claimed the majority, include some provisions meant to appeal to conservative activists who have led the anti-establishment tea party movement. Those include internal rule changes that would require all bills to be posted online three days before votes are taken and mandate that legislation cite the constitutional authority behind it.

In a political climate that favors Republicans, some GOP strategists cautioned against releasing any agenda, reasoning that it would just give Democrats something to criticize.

But Boehner's leadership team thought they needed to show that Republicans are prepared to govern and adopted what they call an 80-20 approach, expecting 80 percent of the campaign to be a negative contrast with Democrats and 20 percent to be focused on Republican ideas.

Democrats rejected the new agenda as a rehash of ideas that Republicans first implemented during the Bush administration, a theme they have repeated throughout congressional campaigns this year.

"Congressional Republicans are pledging to ship jobs overseas; blow a $700 billion hole in the deficit to give tax cuts to millionaires and billionaires; turn Social Security from a guaranteed benefit into a guaranteed gamble; once again, subject American families to the recklessness of Wall Street," Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said in a statement Wednesday.

White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer said that, "instead of charting a new course, Congressional Republicans doubled down on the same ideas that hurt America's middle class."

The 21-page document is partly an echo of the GOP's 1994 "Contract With America," a 10-point agenda unveiled in late September of that year, just before Republicans seized the House majority for the first time in four decades. But it is also an attempt to signal that a new generation of Republicans is ready to lead, having learned from the missteps that led to the party's ouster in the 2006 elections.

Party leaders tapped Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), a second-term lawmaker who did not serve in the previous GOP majority, to draft the document in the spring.

Sensitive to many voters' distrust of anything that appears to come from Washington insiders, Republicans formally released the agenda Thursday morning at a small hardware store in Sterling, 10 miles beyond the Capital Beltway.

Unlike in 1994, when more than 100 Republican candidates appeared on the Capitol steps to sign the Contract With America, Thursday's event will feature just 12 incumbent lawmakers. Of them, only Boehner (Ohio) and Rep. Frank R. Wolf (Va.), whose district includes the hardware store, were in Congress in September 1994.

While more than 180 GOP candidates signed the Contract, there will be no push to get this year's Republican challengers to take the Pledge. Instead, party leaders are encouraging candidates to pick the ideas that best fit their district.

"The importance of the document is it sets up a very sharp contrast," said Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), who was elected in 2006 along with McCarthy and helped write the new agenda. "This is an opportunity to highlight our alternatives."

The document met with derision from some conservatives, who pushed for more robust entitlement reforms to rein in government spending. "It's not taking us where we ultimately have to go as a country, dealing with entitlements and permanent tax changes," said Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who had advocated a plan that dealt specifically with Social Security. "But I can't fault the leadership, because it is political season and they are putting out the best possible thing."

Erick Erickson, the head of the conservative RedState blog, wrote that the agenda is "full of mom tested, kid approved pablum," lacking in concrete proposals such as a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget.

The most immediate proposal for cutting spending is to reduce government funding, except that tied to national security and programs for the elderly, to fiscal 2008 levels. That would result in $100 billion in savings, according to Republican estimates. However, that would barely dent the annual federal deficit, which will exceed $1.3 trillion this year.

Social conservatives, concerned about the emerging economic focus of the GOP agenda, sent a letter to Boehner and House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) this month demanding inclusion of moral-values issues.

The Pledge calls for a ban on federal funding for abortions but, aside from a brief mention of "traditional marriage" in the preamble, GOP leaders decided against noting their opposition to same-sex marriage or other issues related to gay rights.

In the first 100 days of 1995, House Republicans passed nine of the 10 planks of their Contract, but much of the agenda failed in the Senate. The most significant law, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996 after a bipartisan compromise, was a landmark reform of the welfare system.

Some Republicans are optimistic about the new agenda's chances if they win control of Congress, while others have more limited goals.

"If nothing else, it dispels the 'Party of No,' " said Rep. Jack Kingston (Ga.), a freshman in 1994.

kanep@washpost.com baconp@washpost.com

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