House Republicans must choose between ambition and caution in 2014

As House Republicans return to Washington for the new year, their leaders must decide how ambitious the party will be in the 10 months before their majority faces voters in November.

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The smart money is on a cautious election-year strategy, favoring targeted, politically safe legislation over more contentious drives to reform the tax code, overhaul immigration policy and advance a long-awaited conservative alternative to the new healthcare law.

Because of redistricting and historical trends, top political prognosticators believe Republicans are at little risk of losing their House majority, absent a major tactical error or unforeseen development.

At the same time, the GOP will have few chances to enact conservative policies in 2014, facing the same Democratic president and Senate majority it has contended with since taking control of the House in 2011.

That dynamic suggests 2014 will be a holding pattern, as Republicans nationally focus on a bid to re-take the Senate that would put conservatives in Congress on equal footing with President Obama, with whom the GOP has rarely found common cause.

While Obama’s reelection offered brief hope of a fresh start between the parties, 2013 was another year filled with brinksmanship that diminished the president’s standing with the public and sapped his political capital.

“This president is a polarizing figure that does nothing but address a my-way-or-the-highway attitude, and until we have a president that is willing to reach across the aisle, it’s going to be very, very difficult,” Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” offering a view of Obama shared by both rank-and-file Republicans and most of their leaders.

Without a concerted effort at bipartisanship, Republicans in the House might be left to add to the pile of 39 bills targeting healthcare, energy, education and jobs that they passed in 2013 only to be ignored by the Democratic-led Senate.

As outlined by Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House GOP will spend much of January tending to matters left over from 2013, like finishing farm and water projects legislation, going after ObamaCare and completing an omnibus spending bill aligned with the budget agreement struck in December.

Republicans will turn to the rest of the 2014 agenda at their annual retreat at the end of the month. In addition to deciding how far to push on immigration, taxes and healthcare, the party will have to formulate its strategy for raising the debt ceiling in February or March — another choice that will pit members favoring a confrontation with Democrats against those pushing a politically safer route.

Yet before they head to their retreat, House Republicans face immediate political pressure on a number of fronts and from Democrats as well as members of their own party.

The White House and congressional Democrats are loudly pushing for an extension of long-term unemployment insurance that lapsed in December. They are hoping either to force Republicans in the House to act or to paint them as out of touch with struggling people if they don’t. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said an extension of jobless benefits must be paid for and coupled with other job-creation measures — conditions his office says the White House has yet to meet.

Members of both parties are pushing to restore a $7 billion cut to military pensions included in the budget deal struck by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) that Congress approved in December. Ryan is likely to resist changing a provision he proposed, but those calling for its restoration include senior members like Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The leadership is waiting to see whether the issue becomes a rallying point for the rank and file when the GOP Conference holds its first closed-door meeting of the year this week. “There’s certainly some member concern about the issue, but we’ll likely wait to see what the Senate does before deciding whether to act,” a House GOP leadership aide said.

Pressure is likely to build quickly again on immigration when lawmakers return. Obama could make the issue a centerpiece of his State of the Union address, and GOP reform advocates like Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) want the party to act early in the year rather than wait for primary filing deadlines to pass, as some have suggested.

“I will be arguing hard to do it fast,” said Diaz-Balart, who is working on legislation that would combine border security triggers with an opportunity for illegal immigrants to “get right with the law” and gain legal status.

Boehner has said he wants the House to act on a “step-by-step” approach to immigration reform, but he hasn’t laid out a timetable or specific elements of a plan.

The Speaker and his lieutenants will also have to decide whether to bring forward the tax reform plan drafted by Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and whether the House will act on any of the conservative healthcare bills from Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) as well as the Republican Study Committee that aim to replace ObamaCare.

The leadership could decide, however, on a narrower approach favored by Cantor, who has pushed bills as part of his "Making Life Work" agenda that aim to tackle discrete problems with conservative solutions.