Republicans shift from cuts to jobs

House Republicans are shifting their policy focus for the fall as the GOP increasingly risks sharing the blame with President Obama for the weakening economy.

Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) acknowledged Wednesday that the GOP had a singular focus on slashing government spending in the first eight months of its majority in the chamber, perhaps at the expense of the “grow” part of their so-called “cut and grow” strategy.

“We’ve been about cut and grow. The fact is for the last eight months plus, we’ve been about cuts,” Cantor said as he met with reporters for the first time after a month-long congressional recess. “That’s why it is imperative that all of us join together, work with the president, to see how we can grow this economy.”

Cantor’s push to emphasize the “grow” half appeared to reflect a concern among GOP leaders that their campaign for spending cuts had left them vulnerable to criticism, levied by Democrats, that they had not done enough to boost job creation.

House Republicans did release a jobs proposal earlier this summer, but it was overshadowed by talks about the federal debt. Their latest effort faces a similar stumbling block: Obama’s bully pulpit.

Obama is expected to make job creation a major part of his reelection strategy, and will push his plan in a Thursday speech to a joint session of Congress.

The Labor Department reported last week that the economy created zero net jobs in August, signaling that the recovery had stalled and creating a new sense of urgency for policymakers in Washington.

Adding to the GOP’s challenge, a slew of polls released earlier this week showed that members of Congress — and the president — have hit new approval-rating lows as they begin the post-Labor Day political season.

Cantor insisted, as he has before, that the efforts to cut spending and grow the economy were “intertwined,” but after months of slashing, he said: “We have got to be focused like a laser on growth.”

He had telegraphed the falls jobs focus in a memo last month to Republican lawmakers, in which he announced a series of votes on measures to reduce federal regulation in a bid to boost businesses. Efforts to further reduce spending will now be centered in the newly created supercommittee on deficit reduction; Cantor hinted that GOP leaders might not push for a fight over deeper cuts in federal funding levels in 2012.

To that end, the House majority leader sought to strike a tone of civility ahead of Obama’s jobs speech Thursday to both house of Congress, even as he reiterated that Republicans and Democrats “have very different opinions as to how to grow this economy.”

The often combative Cantor told reporters that his constituents were “sick of the rancor” in the Beltway, and implored the president to join GOP leaders in seeking common ground on jobs legislation.

“Frankly what I heard is, they’ve lost a lot of confidence in Washington, and while they’re going through such tough times, they’re frankly sick of the rancor in this town,” Cantor said of Americans in his district and across the country.

Cantor indirectly criticized Obama for suggesting in recent speeches that Republicans who oppose his agenda were putting “politics above country.”

“I don’t question the president’s motives or his commitment to the country now. And I think that’s the way forward as we really put our minds to work,” Cantor said. “Good people can disagree, and that doesn’t mean that anybody is putting politics above country. And I believe that all of us, both sides are trying to do what’s best for the country.”

“I just hope that the president will join us in setting aside the criticisms, the impugning of motives, the lack of being there for the good of the country,” he added later. “That kind of posturing isn’t helpful. The country doesn’t want blame game anymore. They want solutions and results.”

Cantor signaled a surprising openness to Obama’s expected push for more infrastructure spending, as well as extensions to unemployment insurance and a payroll tax cut.

“We believe in infrastructure spending,” Cantor said. “We know that our roads and bridges and highway networks are in need of repair. We know that certain areas of the country need additional roads.”

Cantor said Obama and GOP leaders agreed on the need to give states more flexibility to spend federal transportation dollars, and that the government should look to freeing up funds that have already been authorized before approving new spending.

On unemployment insurance, the majority leader once again touted proposed reforms to the federal program modeled on a state-level program in Georgia.

“There are potential areas of agreement that we could have on unemployment benefits,” he said.

And Cantor suggested he could support an extension in a temporary payroll tax cut that Congress approved in December. Obama has been pushing aggressively to prolong the policy, even as many Republican leaders have denounced it as a gimmick.

“I’ve always said there are probably better ways to focus on small-business growth, but as you know, Republicans are not for increasing taxes,” Cantor said. “It’s something that I’ve supported in the past. This will part of the discussions ongoing.”

—Michael O’Brien contributed

This story was posted at 2:24 p.m. and last updated at 7:17 p.m.

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