Pre-retreat, Republicans debate reaching out to Obama and Democratic leaders

Congressional Republicans are debating how much they should work with President Barack Obama and Democrats.

GOP lawmakers in both chambers told The Hill they sense new leverage on healthcare reform and job creation in the wake of the Massachusetts special election.

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Some fear that if the party resists engaging the president outright, it would suffer a public backlash.

But while those interviewed expressed a desire to share their ideas with Obama, starting this week when he visits the House Republican retreat in Baltimore, some said they do not expect Democratic leaders and their interest groups to accept many of their ideas.

“If the president says he wants to reach across the aisle to Republicans, I think that we should take the opportunity to say, ‘We’re ready,’ ” said centrist Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), a favorite target of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee who wants to talk healthcare reform with Obama.

“We have a plan and we’d like to sit down and find places where we can agree, because it’s in the best interest of the American citizens to find solutions to the rising cost of healthcare,” Reichert said.

GOP lawmakers support various pieces of legislation that Obama could use to build bipartisan coalitions, but that would require him to pursue a much less ambitious agenda than he did during his first year in office.

Centrist Republicans are still angry over Democrats’ efforts to rush healthcare legislation through the Senate before Christmas. In the Senate, they are demanding Obama reach out to Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) before trying to strike separate deals with individuals.

McConnell has repeatedly stressed to his conference the need to channel White House outreach efforts through his office.

“If the Democrats are serious, they ought to focus on McConnell, and that will require some substantial negotiations,” said centrist Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.).

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has told colleagues and reporters that the GOP cannot simply be the “party of no,” but must work with Democrats to offer solutions to the nation’s problems.

Graham said that most of his colleagues agree, but he acknowledged “there are a few people who just want to say, ‘We’re not going to do anything this year.’ ”

Republican pollster Whit Ayres said Republican lawmakers could boost the GOP’s low ratings in generic ballot polls, which are below 50 percent, by working on legislative solutions. But he warned against supporting proposals that would expand government’s role significantly.

“They need to provide alternative solutions that are consistent with their principles, but that doesn’t mean crawling into bed with the liberals,” he said.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), among the most conservative members of the party, has urged colleagues not to abandon their principles for the sake of reform.

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DeMint worries the White House will cherry-pick a few GOP centrists, rather than work with a broader group of Republicans.

“Right now their whole strategy just seems like they want to divide us,” DeMint said.

Senate Republicans are coalescing around what they believe should make up the basic parameters for healthcare reform: that it cannot add to the federal deficit, raise taxes or cut Medicare substantially.

House Republicans have also warmed to negotiating with Democrats, and like their Senate counterparts, have laid down strict ground rules.

Rep. Dave Camp (Mich.), the top-ranking Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, said “it’s important that whatever we do be an open and transparent process, find a way to bring some lawsuit reform and that we do those things that can help bring down the costs of insurance while protecting people with pre-existing conditions.”

There are several popular proposals that could draw strong bipartisan support.

One would set up a nationwide insurance purchasing pool for small businesses. Another would allow insurance companies to sell their policies across state lines, fostering greater market competition. A third would provide tax incentives to employers who offer their workers fitness programs.

Republicans note that Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) co-sponsored tort reform legislation in 2005 and say that proposal could also serve as a pillar of bipartisanship.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who worked with Democrats to create the State Children’s Health Insurance Program in 1997, said Republicans could in turn support a plan to subsidize healthcare coverage for the uninsured.

But Hatch and other Republicans envision a much less expensive plan than Democrats passed through the Senate last month.

Hatch said a package costing $100 billion or less could do the job, arguing that healthcare insurance subsidies should be limited to people who are most in need.

Excluding people who earn $75,000 a year or more, as well as illegal immigrants, Hatch said the pool of Americans who don’t have health coverage ranges from 7 million to 15 million. He said they could be covered by a much smaller package of subsidies than what Democrats crafted.

Conservative GOP Rep. Jack Kingston (Ga.) reached out to his Democratic colleagues months ago to find common ground on reforming parts of the healthcare system.

Kingston has spoken with Blue Dog Democratic Reps. Gene Taylor (Miss.) and Marion Berry (Ark.), but he has questioned whether Democratic leaders would be as willing as rank-and-file members to negotiate with Republicans.

“I really think with the signals that the Speaker has put out since Massachusetts that she’s saying we’re stuck in this position,” Kingston said, making reference to Democratic plans to push a Senate bill through the House and amend it later using special budgetary procedural rules.


J. Taylor Rushing contributed to this article.