GOP pivots in search of positive message

CAMBRIDGE, Md. — House Republicans are at a turning point.

A majority of them, having spent five years in opposition to President Obama — inviting Democrats to tag them as obstructive — are now intent on shaping a positive identity as the “alternative party” for voters in November’s midterm elections.

This is a significant shift and a big risk.

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A year ago, House Republicans were staggering after crushing defeats in fights over taxes and relief for victims of Hurricane Sandy. Now they are forging ahead on an alternative to ObamaCare and testing support for a move on immigration.

But can they get the votes to pass such controversial bills?

Many on the right, including the editors of the National Review and the Weekly Standard, are criticizing Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) new strategy.

The Speaker, after getting battered by the Tea Party in 2013, is punching back.

He defied right-wing pressure groups such as Heritage Action and scheduled votes on a two-year, $1.1 trillion budget and a $950 billion farm bill. Both passed easily.

Breaking the logjam in this way sparked talk of a new mood in Washington after two years of budget battles that culminated in October’s 16-day government shutdown.

Suddenly, the House GOP wants to be a party of action, not just “the party of no.”

But it is unclear whether the new image is real. Can Boehner pass an immigration bill through the House with support from both parties? Or, will the new normal quickly revert to the old normal, with the party's leaders forced to craft bills that can only pass the House if 217 votes can be found from among the Republican ranks?

Either future seems possible after the House GOP’s strategic retreat at this snow-covered resort on the Chesapeake Bay.

The promise of something new came with the release of immigration principles including a commitment to legal status for illegal immigrants. Even GOP opponents concede this is a significant shift that makes a deal seem possible.

Yet Republicans left many details undecided on immigration, the federal borrowing limit and tax reform. Some of them warn that a more liberal immigration bill will alienate the GOP base and depress voter turnout — the key to winning a midterm election.

The party’s first challenge, however, will be to lift the debt ceiling, and it is increasingly likely to play out the same way that the budget and omnibus deals did.

Federal borrowing will hit its upper limit by late February, and leadership was pleasantly surprised to find, during closed-door talks, that even some ardent conservatives were willing to lift the ceiling in exchange for only small concessions.

The shutdown has clearly changed the attitude of rank-and-file members.

“Our members learned some hard lessons,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said after returning to the Capitol on Friday. The conference is now willing to “play a little bit longer game” after experiencing widespread opprobrium for forcing a fight over ObamaCare funding that led to the shutdown.

“I think after a tough year, we’ve come to the realization that it’s not going to be enough to be against the president,” Cole said.

On healthcare, conservatives cheered Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) pledge to put forward and vote on an alternative to Obama’s reforms. The leadership did not endorse a specific proposal, and choosing from among competing plans and deciding whether to keep any popular elements of the current law are big challenges in an election year.

Crafting a bill that could pass with mostly Republican support would be difficult and would echo many of the largely partisan votes of the past three years.

Similarly, Cantor sketched out an economic agenda but left out many details. His main purpose was to convey the idea that Republicans are working to meet the everyday concerns of voters — similar to his 2013 message about “Making Life Work,” which met with mixed success.

Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), Ways and Means panel chairman, told reporters that his colleagues wanted taxes overhauled. But he did not guarantee that his proposal, the details of which are under wraps, would ever see the light of day.

While taxes, healthcare and debt are undoubtedly tough for House Republicans, the most vexing problem they face is on immigration. Even though they cheer the idea of a robust legislative agenda in principle, in practice many GOP lawmakers recoiled from immigration reform after seeing their leaders’ one-page document of principles.

At a feedback session, a significant number of lawmakers voiced concerns about pushing immigration reform aggressively, both because of the looming election and because they distrust Obama.

“There’s not a consensus yet,” Cole said. “I see this as a longer, slower process.”

Still, lawmakers are shrugging off delays and say they are encouraged that the party plans to be proactive after years of veering from one crisis to the next.

“I don’t think we’re divided. We’re in the process of laying out the things that unify us,” said Rep. Steve Scalise (La.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee.

Electorally, the GOP feels it is on more solid footing.

Few analysts expect Democrats to regain control of the House — retirements among senior Democrats suggest they see the writing on the wall, too — and Republicans have set a goal of expanding their majority in November.

They want to play offense both politically and legislatively, said Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.), the House GOP’s campaign chief.

“It is incumbent upon us, as an alternative party, not an opposition party, to have ideas that we put forward that are rooted in our principles,” Walden said, echoing a message Boehner delivered at the outset of the conference. “The point is, you need something positive to run on.”