GOP tries to steal initiative on economy from the Dems

After failing to connect with voters on the economy last year, Republicans are attempting to seize the issue before the 2010 elections.

The transition to bread-and-butter issues has not been an easy one for the GOP, especially in the wake of the economic meltdown last fall.

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The 2008 collapse of large U.S. financial institutions and the subsequent financial bailout passed by Congress all but ended any chance that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) would become the 44th president.

But with George W. Bush out of office and the Iraq war not attracting as many headlines as it did a few years ago, Republicans in both the House and Senate are talking less about fighting terrorists and more about unemployment figures.

In a recent interview with The Hill, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) talked at length on domestic issues, ranging from bailouts for the automotive industry to healthcare reform to tax policies.

House Republicans last summer seized on high gas prices, launching a monthlong effort in August to give speeches on the floor about drilling for oil in the U.S. But this summer, GOP lawmakers in the lower chamber intend to forgo a reprisal of that initiative and instead plan to fire up their voters by discussing what they call “job-killing” Democratic policies.

“I’d rather go debate at home and see our members carry the message there, and frankly I’d like to see the Democrats go home and get pounded on,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), the former head of the House GOP campaign arm.

Earlier this week, many House Republicans went to the floor to repeatedly note the public’s eroding lack of confidence in the $787 billion stimulus law, asking, “Where are the jobs?”

While they may lack significant power in the nation’s capital, there is less onus on Republicans to offer specific proposals to fix the ailing economy. Instead, their focus is on message.

Republicans who had promised last month to offer a healthcare reform alternative are now suggesting no such bill will be introduced.

Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said, “Our bill is never going to get to the floor, so why confuse the focus? We clearly have principles; we could have language, but why start diverting attention from this really bad piece of work they’ve got to whatever we’re offering right now?”

Blunt, who is running for Senate, is chairman of the House GOP Health Care Solutions Group. Cantor made similar comments to The Hill in June, saying Republicans would eventually offer legislative language on healthcare reform.

Democrats on Wednesday called out Republicans, reminding reporters in an e-mail that Blunt had guaranteed that the GOP would introduce a bill.

The e-mail, sent out by Rep. Chris Van Hollen’s (D-Md.) office, was titled, “It’s Been 35 Days, Where’s the Republican Bill?”

The Democrats’ internecine fight over healthcare reform, a politically risky vote on a House climate change bill and President Obama’s drop in the polls have Republicans hopeful that they will pick up congressional seats next year.

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said Obama may be slipping in the polls, but Republicans aren’t gaining, adding that the economic situation has hurt both parties.

Republicans acknowledge their fiscal policies went awry during the Bush administration, but they argue that Democrats’ spending during the first six months of the year has helped them recover politically.

“Democrats are losing credibility in terms of handling the deficit, when all people read about is how we’re spending a trillion there, $300 billion there, $500 billion there. We’re starting to win that fiscal responsibility argument back,” a senior GOP leadership aide said.

Congressional Republicans are also no longer handcuffed to their president, or their presidential candidate.

On Tuesday, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) delivered a floor speech criticizing proposals that would tax employee health benefits. He didn’t deliver that speech last year, when McCain was touting a similar health plan.

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