Shifting the focus back to Obama

Lauren Schneiderman

House Republican leaders, having dispensed with the debt limit and put immigration reform on the back burner, will return to their political comfort zone with a legislative agenda focused on attacking the Obama administration and government excess.

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Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has announced that the week of Feb. 24 will be “Stop Government Abuse Week” in the House, and his office has lined up more than a dozen bills targeting IRS activities, government transparency and bureaucratic red tape.

The legislative push is a response to what Cantor described as “continual overreach” — complaints the Obama administration regularly oversteps its bounds with regulatory rule-making and inappropriate targeting of political groups by the IRS.

While many of the bills are narrow in scope and technical in nature, freshman Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) said they respond to “meat-and-potatoes” concerns from constituents.

“This week focuses on things I hear in my district, which is why is the government involved in my business?” he said.

For the GOP leadership, the agenda serves a number of purposes.

It will attempt to put a more unified conference back on offense after it spent the early part of 2014 enmeshed in divisive intra-party debates over immigration and a strategy for raising the debt limit. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) slammed the brakes on his immigration reform push amid pushback from conservatives, and he abruptly moved a debt-ceiling increase with Democratic votes after his conference could not agree on an alternative.

“There’s a great deal of unanimity among Republicans on these themes,” said Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), the chief deputy whip, who has two bills on the floor aimed at reining in the IRS.

One Roskam measure would prevent the IRS from asking taxpayers any questions regarding their political, social or religious belief, and the other would cap the duration of audits at one year and require the IRS to reply to taxpayer inquiries with a “substantive response” within 30 days.

The centerpiece of the agenda is a Ways and Means Committee bill, the Stop Targeting of Political Beliefs by the IRS Act, that would halt implementation of proposed regulations on 501(c)(4) organizations in response to the disclosure last year that some groups had been inappropriately scrutinized.

Roskam predicted that once the bills come up for a vote, they will attract support from “a number of Democrats,” and packaging the legislative proposals together would help “drive a theme and draw attention” to the effort.

It also will allow leaders to stack up more bills on the desk of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) while providing an opportunity to showcase the work of some of the conference’s younger members.

The flurry of House votes will keep the lower chamber active, while party leaders prepare bolder moves for later in the spring and summer on its annual budget, an ObamaCare alternative and other areas.

The Republican game plan will also require a good defense, as the White House and congressional Democrats intensify their effort to get Boehner to move on immigration, unemployment benefits and an increase to the minimum wage.

Yet for some members, the GOP strategy might have too much of a familiar ring to it. The House GOP passed numerous measures with a similar theme in 2013, and its moves to pile up dozens of House-passed bills at the Senate’s doorstep has not actually resulted in many of them becoming law, to the growing frustration of rank-and-file Republicans.

“The real stop sign in this country is Harry Reid,” said Collins, who will see a vote his bill to require more transparency when regulatory actions are taken as a result of lawsuits.

Reid and Senate Democratic leaders have felt little pressure to act on the House GOP proposals, which, unlike bigger ticket items like immigration and tax reform, don’t have aggressive public lobbying campaigns behind them.

Republicans acknowledge there is little more they can do to force Reid’s hand, but they say it wouldn’t stop the party from sending more of its agenda to the Senate.

“We choose not to be defined by Sen. Reid,” Roskam said.

He added that there might be more hope of getting some of the proposals into law this year by including them as policy add-ons to appropriations bills. Members of both parties are optimistic that more annual spending bills can move through the House and Senate as a result of the budget agreement in December.

GOP lawmakers emerged from the party’s Maryland retreat last month wanting a bolder agenda from the leadership, and Roskam said the narrower focus of the “Stop Government Abuse” proposals would not “crowd out” other items like tax reform and a major healthcare push.

“They’re not mutually exclusive,” Roskam said.