A strategic divide is emerging within the House GOP over how to govern in 2014, a rift that Republicans fear could grow larger at their conference retreat later this month.
Speaker John Boehner spent weeks before last January's retreat meeting privately with five leading conservative lawmakers to craft a legislative playbook that would unite the conference in 2013. There is no such coordination heading into this session.
Instead, leadership officials and conservative members have been huddling separately to strategize for the year ahead. And based on conversations with dozens of Republican lawmakers and aides, those plans appear to be on a collision course when Republicans gather in Cambridge, Md., from Jan. 29 through Jan. 31.
The coming clash won't revolve around the debt ceiling, even though it's the most pressing issue and the one responsible for consistent internecine conflict over the past few years. (Conservatives have tempered their expectations for this debt-limit fight, and they sound resigned to leadership passing an extension with some relatively modest policy rider attached.) Meanwhile, more fundamentally, a fight is brewing within the conference over the GOP's legislative ambition in this midterm election year.
According to sources with knowledge of the deliberations, Boehner and his leadership team prefer a quiet, noncontroversial legislative session in which Republicans steer clear of mistakes and run out the clock until the November elections. This play-it-safe strategy hinges on voters turning out in droves to voice their displeasure with President Obama's health care law and his administration's domestic-surveillance policies, among other things.
But such an approach is unacceptable to the most conservative members of the House GOP. After two weeks of private deliberations, and fresh off a mini-retreat this week organized by the Republican Study Committee, conservatives are united in their resolve to make 2014 more about Republicans' "bold, positive vision" and less about Obama's failures.
"I'm convinced Republicans have the best vision for America's future," Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas said outside of Wednesday's RSC meeting. "We've spent a lot of time opposing the president's policies, but it's time to share our vision if we want to win in November."
That sentiment has echoed among conservative lawmakers all week, and it ramped up during the weekly RSC gathering. Chairman Steve Scalise, perhaps sensing the frustration some members felt with the RSC's lack of aggression during the December budget fight, framed the legislative-strategy debate in big terms. After consulting with his fellow lawmakers this week, Scalise informed members that he's prepared to push leadership hard this year on the conservative agenda that touts a health care alternative, a tax-reform plan, a welfare-reform package, and a privacy bill.
"I don't want to play prevent defense," Scalise said, according to members in attendance. "I want to play offense."
Asked to explain the remark later in an interview, Scalise said, "Usually teams that play prevent defense lose the game."
But Boehner's team doesn't share that view. GOP leadership has done everything possible in recent months to keep the electorate's attention on the Democrats, especially highlighting the disastrous rollout of President Obama's health care law and Republican oversight efforts on the IRS scandal and Benghazi attacks. Leadership officials are intent on keeping the American public "talking about Obamacare" all the way until November.
Besides, already fewer than 90 work days remain in the legislative session. Even if leadership officials were to embrace an ambitious agenda, they see little time to implement it.
"We have to do a budget, we have to do appropriations, we have to do debt ceiling. There are a lot of issues that are hanging out there that have to be done that dominate a lot of the calendar," said Rep. James Lankford, the Republican policy chairman and a member of leadership.
That said, many of the conservatives' policy objectives for 2014 are likely dead on arrival in Cambridge anyway.
On the issue of the day, Obamacare, GOP leadership has been under siege for months as Republican lawmakers have begged them to bring an alternative plan to the floor for a vote. But just as they did in 2013, Boehner's team appears content to sit back and bet on Obamacare collapsing under its own weight this year—angering Republicans who say such a strategy plays into the president's accusation that the GOP has no ideas of its own.
The RSC health care package crafted by Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee has more than 120 cosponsors, and another plan long championed by Rep. Tom Price of Georgia enjoys widespread support in the conference. Yet neither Price nor Roe nor any of their GOP colleagues have been able to persuade leadership to endorse one of these Obamacare alternatives.
"We need a health care bill. And the answer's always the same: 'We don't have 218 for that,' " said Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, referring to the number of Republican votes needed to pass a bill. "Dammit, let's go out and get 218. I mean, seriously."
Another big-ticket policy item, tax reform, has been on Republicans' agenda ever since they won back the majority three years ago. But Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, who has spent years crafting a comprehensive overhaul, was told by GOP leadership in November that the timing isn't right for a major rewrite of the tax code.
This angered many conservatives, who say they still haven't gotten an answer on why leadership pulled the plug. "You'll have to ask them," said Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, a former RSC chairman. "We've been waiting three years for a bill. I think the vast majority of the conference is already there and waiting. So let's see the bill."
Other proposals such as welfare-reform and privacy legislation haven't been specifically rejected or delayed by leadership. But already, conservatives get the sense that, as with other policy initiatives, Boehner's team would rather play it safe and not jeopardize the electoral success that appears probable for Republicans this fall.
Such an approach is not without merit. Putting out controversial policy proposals always carries a risk, top Republicans say, and that gamble can become downright reckless when a bill stands no chance of passing the other chamber or being signed into law anyway.
"It's apparent, with four Republican amendments in the Senate in the last six months, the Senate isn't interested in taking up anything that's a conservative idea," Lankford said.
Moreover, as Republicans approach what appears to be a favorable midterm election, Boehner's team argues it makes sense to wait for the arrival of reinforcements—including, perhaps, a Senate majority—before pursuing some of their loftier, and riskier, policy ambitions.
"The best way to achieve conservative policy goals is to hold the House and take over the Senate," one House leadership aide said.
But rank-and-file Republicans insist they won't accept that approach.
"Folks don't want to vote against somebody, they want to vote in favor of something," said Rep. Rob Woodall of Georgia. "If we were bankrupt in our ideas, we'd have to run against Obamacare. But we're not. We have wonderful ideas—and I want to spend every day telling people about those."
"This is no time to duck into a foxhole," said Rep. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming. "This is the time for Republicans to lead."
Ironically, the one hot-button subject Boehner and his team want to address this year—immigration—is not a priority for most rank-and-file Republicans. In fact, some warn that resurrecting the debate over what to do about the nation's undocumented immigrants could hurt Republican prospects in November by quelling what is currently a fired-up conservative base.
"Every day that we discuss immigration helps Barack Obama change the topic from Obamacare," said Rep. Steve King of Iowa, the House's leading opponent of immigration-reform efforts.
Of course, every day that Republicans discuss immigration also gives King a platform to say something that damages the GOP's national brand, and in turn, hurts the party's chances of recapturing the Senate in November.
Republicans, though, say there is urgency in pushing aggressive policy solutions in 2014—election year or not. Staying quiet and letting Democrats beat themselves may be a winning formula for November, they say, but such a legislative strategy does little to position the party for broader electoral gains and a shot at winning back the White House.
"We have to stop being afraid. Republicans are always afraid," said Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho. "We cannot win in 2016 if we don't win in 2014. And we cannot win in 2014 if we don't show a bold vision for America."
This article appears in the January 17, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.