?The House of Representatives was gaveled into its first session of the Obama presidency at noon Wednesday. At that hour, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the Republican minority leader in the House, was speaking to reporters about Democrats’ unwillingness to open up debate on the $850 billion stimulus package, and Republicans’ request to meet with the president on Thursday to push for their own proposals.
“President Obama asked for our input and asked for our ideas,” said Boehner. “And we’ve been working to develop those and want to share those with [the administration].”
Reporters pressed Boehner on what, precisely, the GOP wanted to emphasize to Obama. “I think it’s fair that we sit down with the president and share those ideas with him,” he said, “and not go through a process of sharing them with the press.”
House Republicans are in unfamiliar and politically unpromising territory. Unlike their counterparts in the Senate, they have very few methods of slowing down or stopping legislation they don’t like. Their influence was reduced two weeks ago by a rule change that effectively prevents members of the minority party from forcing votes on controversial amendments, one of the few cudgels the party had in the House.
Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/politics.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin
In response, Republicans are attempting to link themselves to the popular Obama administration while criticizing the work of the Democratic Congress. The goal is to oppose Democratic policy without being seen as opposing or obstructing the president, a posture that, they hope, will put them in better position to win back voters if the Democrats’ popularity falters.
“What Rep. Boehner and [Minority Whip] Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) are doing is absolutely essential,” said Alex Brill, an economic research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, who worked for the House Ways and Means Committee before the Democratic takeover in 2007. “They’re bringing to light the true effects of the Democrats’ proposals. They’re creating a dialogue. It’s the best that we can hope for right now.”
The strategy is only a little bit older than the Obama presidency. On Nov. 5, the then-president-elect met with House Republicans. In a comment that leaked out of the closed-door meeting, Obama told Republicans that “the monopoly on good ideas does not belong to a single party.” Immediately, Republican leaders started putting together a Working Group on Economic Solutions that would be, in Cantor’s words, “razor focused on job protection, preservation, and creation.”
Republican sources did not label the strategy “triangulation,” as a report in Roll Call did yesterday. But they did not deny that the portrayal of Obama as a working partner and the congressional Democrats as obstinate partisans was a reflection of the popularity of the two branches. The new president boasts approval ratings north of 70 percent; the Congress is mired in the 30s. “His message is bipartisanship,” said one Republican, referring to the president. “Their message is ‘trust us to spend your money.’”
Last week House Republicans pushed their cooperative measures on two fronts. On Jan. 14, members of the Republican Study Committee, the conservative caucus in the House, introduced an Economic Recovery and Middle-Class Tax Relief Act which included cutting income tax rates by five percent, partially repealing the capital gains tax, and slashing corporate tax rates from 35 percent to 25 percent. Cantor’s ad hoc group held one hearing on Jan.15, in which Mitt Romney, former eBay executive (and Romney/McCain economic adviser) Meg Whitman, AEI’s Alex Brill, and Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform fielded friendly questions, with answers mirroring the content of the going-nowhere tax bill.
This week, Norquist praised the work of the House Republicans.
“We should not treat Obama, Reid, and Pelosi, the way that the Bush administration treated Iran-’You’re a bad person and we don’t want to talk to you,’” said Norquist. “We engage the Democrats by being cheerful and pleasant and open to conversation. They say they want 10 ideas? OK, here are 10 ideas. The next time they say they want 10 ideas, we say that they asked before, and, just for the record, they rejected our ideas. When you get to May, who’s the obstructionist and who’s the collaborator?”
Republicans staffers in the House wouldn’t immediately say whether this was a good summing-up of the strategy. They were hopeful about the president, and hopeful that Democrats wouldn’t scuttle his calls for bipartisanship. They also argued that the president would need more ideas from across the aisle because a new study by the Congressional Budget Office was bearish on the short-term stimulating effects of the Democratic proposal that President Obama supports. According to the report, only $136 billion of the $355 billion of spending in the proposed stimulus package would be spent by October 2010, a point emphasized when the office of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate minority leader, distributed this to reporters.
“If this is a stimulus bill, call it a stimulus bill,” said Cantor spokesman Brad Dayspring. “If it’s a long-term spending bill, then call it a long-term spending bill.”
If any conservative activists have quibbles with the Republican strategy, of presenting their ideas as collaborative efforts with the president, they have kept quiet. The differences between now and the last time Republicans fought a new Democratic president from a position of weakness are stark. In 1993, Republicans did propose their own no-chance alternative to President Bill Clinton’s deficit-reducing, tax-increasing budget. Their Putting Jobs and the American Family First Act included spending caps, tax credits, and a capital gains tax cut. But Republicans under Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich declared early on that they would oppose any budget that included tax increases. The current crop of Republicans hope to define their differences with Democrats, and to curry favor with the public, by letting themselves be courted by the popular president.
“Regardless of what Obama says,” said Norquist, “Pelosi and Reid are not going to allow all of this to happen. If you’re in the Congress, you’re thinking ‘they’re going to double-cross me, they’re going to screw me.’ But even if you think that’s the likely endgame, why say that?”
The strategy might not be subtle, but it’s working for now. At the close of business on Wednesday, the White House announced that Cantor’s working group would be invited to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue next week to discuss the stimulus package and the ideas they had been asked for.
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