Alternative job-creation plan is tough sell for House Republican leadership

As House Republicans embark on their fall agenda, they face a steep challenge: working out how a party that doesn’t believe the government should create jobs can best present a job-creation platform.

While a newly aggressive President Obama pushes another round of infrastructure spending and temporary tax cuts to spark the economy, Republicans argue that the recipe for jobs is to get rid of excessive government interference in business.

Slashing red tape may not directly create jobs, GOP lawmakers acknowledge, but in the words of freshman Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.), “It’s creating the atmosphere that is going to allow the private sector to be unleashed.”

The message is a consistent one for Republicans, who nonetheless concede it is a more complicated argument than the one voters typically hear from Democrats.

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“I’m going to create an environment in which your company can flourish. I’m going to create an environment for job creation in the country,” Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) said. “That’s always been harder to articulate and to get that message out than saying, ‘I’m just going to give you something.’”

The stakes are high for GOP leaders, who have made jobs legislation the centerpiece of their fall schedule.

While the embattled Obama is placing the future of his presidency on his jobs plan, polls show dissatisfaction with Congress has reached all-time highs amid anxiety over jobs and the economy.

Republican leaders are making a public effort to show they are working with Obama, wanting to avoid taking the blame in 2012 if legislation stalls and the economy worsens.

Republicans have refocused their agenda after what amounted to a six-month political brawl over federal spending. They insist that they never lost sight of the second half of their “cut-and-grow” agenda, pointing to 11 House-passed jobs bills languishing in the Democratic Senate.

But the push to slash spending in the 2011 budget battle and the debt-limit fight dominated the conversation in Washington.

“I think that pretty much sucked all the oxygen out of every other debate,” Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Ark.) said. “We have to multi-task and do both, and that is obviously address our spending problem and at the same time empower the private sector to create and to grow jobs.”

GOP leadership aides said the congressional calendar dictated much of the spending focus in the first half of the year- — federal funding was set to run out in late winter, and the debt limit loomed soon after. “There were things that we had to do,” an aide said. “We’ve dispensed with those debt issues. So now the floor can be focused on pro-growth measures.”

Party leaders argued throughout the spring and summer that the drive to cut spending and reduce the deficit would help the economy by improving the nation’s fiscal footing and removing government largess as an obstacle to private-sector job growth. “These are intertwined. That is why we always say this is simultaneous,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Wednesday.

Whether most Americans viewed the push for spending cuts through the prism of the economy is an open question. “I don’t know that we ever drew that connection well enough,” a second House GOP leadership aide said.

Democrats denounced the Republican emphasis on budget cuts, saying the new majority had ignored the nation’s employment crisis. That criticism only grew louder after a Labor Department report found zero net job growth in August.

“The ideas that have been put forth thus far in the nearly 250 days that the Republicans have had the majority have not created one job,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said.

Other Democrats have gone further and suggested the immediate spending cuts Republicans have demanded have slowed the economic recovery — an argument the GOP rejects. “We do not see the correlation between controlling outrageous and wasteful Washington spending and the loss of jobs,” said Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Still, when Republicans returned to their districts after the bruising debt-limit battle and the S&P downgrade of America’s credit rating, they found constituents angry at Congress and fearful of the faltering economy. “Frankly, I heard that they have lost a lot of confidence in Washington,” Cantor said. “While they are going through such tough times, they are sick of the rancor in this town.”

Returning to the Capitol this month, House Republican leaders — and Cantor in particular — have softened their tone toward the White House. Cantor has stressed the desire to work together and has signaled he is open to considering several of Obama’s proposals. “The country doesn’t want a blame game anymore. They want to see solutions and results,” the majority leader said.

A day after Obama’s address to Congress, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Cantor and other top Republicans told the president in a letter that the House would “immediately begin the process of reviewing and considering” his proposals. A trio of trade agreements, payroll tax cuts and reform of the unemployment insurance system are areas where the two parties could work together, lawmakers said.

Obama has said he is open to looking at trimming some regulations, following his administration’s announcement that it would delay environmental rules related to ozone standards. His administration also unveiled regultory plans in August that included more than 500 reforms.

But Republicans, far from impressed with that plan, have pushed to eliminate more rules from the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies.

“Five hundred from him, 500 from us. That’d be a really good start,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Oversight Committee.

Rank-and-file Republicans appeared more openly skeptical about the prospects for bipartisan agreement, with several panning Obama’s address as a campaign speech. And few had any regrets about the majority’s cuts-heavy agenda.

“Talking about cuts and addressing spending in Washington for the first eight months of this Congress has been a positive overall,” Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.) said. “I do think we need to focus on finding common ground where we can.”

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) added: “If we find a window, we can maybe do some things together. Beyond that, I will tell you that it’s going to be important just to hang on and get a new president and a new configuration in Congress.”