House GOP faces election-year hurdles

With leadership elections and a retreat behind them, House Republicans face a number of legislative hurdles as they prepare for next November’s elections.

They are divided over immigration and lobbying reform, both of which could loom large in the midterms if left unaddressed. And GOP leaders in both chambers are searching for an issue around which their members can rally this year.

Complicating matters is a likely showdown between leaders and conservatives who want earmark reform and an overhaul of the budget process and the reluctance of vulnerable members who want to avoid votes that might upset constituents.

House Democrats are also expected to rally to their leadership to prevent Republican legislative victories.

“I think the second midterm, the six-year itch, is always a challenge for the incumbent party,” Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Ken Mehlman said during a media briefing at last week’s member retreat in Cambridge, Md.

Few concrete ideas emerged from the retreat, at the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. A dialogue on lobbying was much less confrontational than previous discussions, and members are expected to renew debate at their weekly meeting tomorrow morning.

During his campaign for the leadership, House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) proposed a member task force to find an issue or theme that members could seize on as an election winner. Nothing emerged at the retreat, but prominent Republicans hint that an expansion of health savings accounts could become a priority.

President Bush mentioned the accounts in his recent State of the Union address, and House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) is backing a bill introduced by Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) that could boost enrollment in the plans. Hastert, Mehlman and House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) all mentioned the accounts during last week’s retreats.

Immigration and spending both present problems for congressional Republicans; they excite the conservative base but can alienate marginal GOP voters.

The House has passed a border-security bill expected to be coupled with a Senate bill containing a guest-worker program. The Senate bill is expected to protect workers already in America and expand the guest-worker program. Both will be hard to sell to House members on either side of the aisle.

Spending is complicated because although a broad coalition of Republican voters wants cuts, trimming existing programs is anathema to House members whose districts are affected.

Conference conservatives triggered alarm among base voters last fall by calling for spending reductions to offset emergency expenditures requested by the White House.

“A lot of our voters want to see us reduce spending,” Mehlman said before explaining that base Republican voters go to the polls for a lot of reasons beyond spending.

Without directly addressing the impact of a budget battle on the midterms, National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) suggested that a spending fight would have limited impact on the party faithful, saying, “Neither aspect is ever happy.”

Lobbying reform is the most immediate issue facing the House GOP.

A cloud of ethical doubt hangs over the GOP after the guilty plea of former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) in a federal corruption probe and the possibility of further indictments in the investigation of Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is working with federal investigators after pleading guilty to bribery and corruption charges earlier this year.

Hastert and Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) introduced reform proposals soon after the Abramoff plea, including a ban on privately funded travel that prompted opposition among many GOP members including Boehner.

“We want to do lobby reform as timely as possible,” Hastert said in Maryland last week.

Democrats continue to hammer congressional Republicans for a “culture of corruption,” while the NRCC recently coined its own “culture of hypocrisy” campaign to condemn congressional Democrats.

Reynolds last week dismissed the suggestion that recent indictments would hurt Republicans in other races and suggested that Democrats would be drawn into the investigations. “I find it unbelievable that the Democrats want to make Abramoff a Republican scandal,” Reynolds said.

A partisan impasse prevented the House ethics committee from meeting last year, and members of both parties threaten to bring complaints against their counterparts when the committee is running.

“This is a problem that has really crossed party lines,” Dreier said last week.

But however bipartisan the controversy, Republican leaders recognize the need to enact some changes.

“I think ethics reform is critical,” Mehlman said.

As they work on their own agenda, Republicans are condemning congressional Democrats for lacking one. But the Republicans face more scrutiny because their party controls the White House and the Congress.

The leadership shakeup is bound create headaches as Boehner hires new staff members who must learn new roles. But the leadership was hopeful that the change would give members more confidence in the party, whatever course they chart legislatively.

“What the members need to do is start over together,” Boehner said. “It’s going to take several weeks of serious conversations.”

But Boehner was also quick to mention that to be successful in this environment the party will also need eventually to chart its course.