Conservatives lay out vision for the future

Conservatives on Monday offered a vision of a nation without ObamaCare, Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, and with the federal government offloading authority over a broad swath of policy to the states.

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Their utopia won’t come to pass until 2017 at the earliest, but conservatives are pressing their colleagues to get started now.

That was the overriding message during a daylong Heritage Action policy summit. The respected 40-year-old right-leaning think tank has recently come under fire from GOP leaders for its political arm’s aggressive tactics, which some say are sullying the group’s reputation. 

In speeches and panel discussions at the foundation’s Capitol Hill headquarters, conservative lawmakers in the House and Senate pushed party leaders to begin laying the groundwork in 2014 for a policy agenda that Republicans could enact if they win control of the Senate and the White House over the next three years.

Conservatives presented proposals across a range of policy areas: healthcare, welfare reform, energy, financial regulation, surveillance reform and education among them. But with few exceptions, they sought to line up with the reality of a Republican Party out of power and distrusting of comprehensive legislative proposals.

“These are not just pie in the sky ideas we’re talking about,” Heritage’s president, former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), said in kicking off the summit.

“These are not huge things like tax reform and entitlement reform that we know we can’t get done this year.”

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a former chairman of the Republican Study Committee in the House, touted proposals to overhaul federal welfare programs by increasing work requirements and returning more power to the states.

Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), talked up plans to rein in the National Security Agency’s surveillance program and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) pushed Republicans to reach for increased energy production, particularly fracking, that goes far beyond construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

The chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), discussed his bill to overhaul the federal housing programs and shutter Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

And physician Reps. Tom Price (R-Ga.) and Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) promoted their ideas for tackling a long-running conservative priority: replacing President Obama’s healthcare law with a system that allows people to buy health insurance across state lines and take it from job to job, that reduces “defensive medicine” through tort reform, and that expands health savings accounts.

Underlying the proposals was a desire, embraced by the House Republican leadership last week, for the GOP to put forward an alternative vision for the country, even if it stands little to no chance of enactment until 2017 at the earliest, when the GOP could theoretically control both houses of Congress and the White House. 

Their rhetoric is a clear move away from the party’s strategy in the 2012 presidential campaign, when Republicans by and large tried to make the election a referendum on Obama’s policies. Now, Republicans say they have to offer their own vision as an alternative. 

“The American people have the right to be presented with a choice,” Heritage Action CEO Michael Needham said.

On healthcare, conservatives have cheered a pledge by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) to vote on a replacement for ObamaCare in 2014.

But Price cautioned the new system he envisioned was, practically speaking, years away.

Obama, he said, is “not going to sign a bill to repeal his signature legislation.”

“What will happen, I believe firmly, is that in three to five years, we won’t be living under this law,” Price added.

With many Republicans favoring a piecemeal legislative approaches over larger, harder-to-explain bills like ObamaCare, Hensarling was one of the few conservatives to talk up a comprehensive proposal. But he acknowledged that his PATH Act overhauling housing laws faced long odds, even to pass the GOP-controlled House in 2014.

“If this doesn’t get done in the next several months,” Hensarling said, “the window will probably pass.”

The conference also was notable for the topics that did not come up. Immigration reform drew only a passing reference from DeMint, who said he favored action on immigration but not in 2014.

“Frankly, this is just not a good time to do it,” he said.

And there was little early discussion of the debt ceiling ahead of a Monday afternoon meeting of House Republicans, and after years in which conservatives made spending reductions a top priority.

While Heritage has drawn the ire of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) for its frequent opposition to leadership proposals, the presenters largely ignored the party leaders.

Instead, the lawmakers who took the stage on Monday went out of their way to align themselves with the increasingly controversial organization. 

“When you’re working with the Heritage Foundation, I’ll bet on that team every time,” Jordan said, calling it “the greatest policy think tank in the whole wide world.”

— This story was updated on Feb. 11 to reflect that the summit was held by Heritage Action.