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Congress

How Will Senate GOP Lead as Boehner Takes a Back Seat? Exploit the Process

Mitch McConnell will exploit Democrats' promise of regular order to force the GOP position on the big issues.

photo of Chris Frates
February 20, 2013

When Senate Republicans gathered at the Library of Congress earlier this month to plot strategy, they were joined by a special guest, John Boehner. 

The Republican House speaker talked to the assembled senators about the importance of holding the line against tax increases while pushing for more spending cuts. And toward the end of Boehner’s Q+A, his Senate counterpart, Mitch McConnell, stood up to say something.

“Nobody said cutting spending would be easy,” the Senate Republican leader told the closed-door meeting of his colleagues. “We need to fight.”

And Boehner’s strategy to force Senate Democrats to lead on some of the biggest issues facing the nation, including guns, immigration and fiscal policy, means that Senate Republicans now find themselves on the frontlines.

Boehner and McConnell have a good working relationship and House leaders are reaching out to senators in an attempt to better integrate their messaging and legislative strategies, aides say.

House Republicans are trying to avoid a repeat of last year when their Senate colleagues allowed Democrats to pass legislation that raised taxes on households making more than $250,000. Democrats used the bill as a political cudgel to beat Republicans for wanting to protect the rich at the expense of the middle class.

Republicans in the House want their Senate compatriots to help craft legislation that can also pass in the lower chamber. As one senior House GOP aide put it, sometimes they’ll have to take 60 percent of what they want and call it a win.

And part of that strategy includes forcing Democrats to make good on their promise to take legislation through the regular process from committee to floor debate. And to help make sure that happens on fiscal issues, McConnell has said he is not going to play the role of 11th-hour closer that he has over the past few years.

“I'm not interested in an 11th hour negotiation,” McConnell said last week. “My view, and I believe the view of overwhelming majority of Senate Republicans is that we ought to keep the commitment we made a year and a half ago, and that is to achieve this amount of spending reduction without raising taxes in this coming year.”

McConnell’s not-so-subtle message to Democrats, according to a senior GOP Senate aide, “We’re not going to be here to bail you out at the end.”

In fact, GOP aides regularly point out that Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Obama haven’t passed much sweeping legislation since they lost their grip on the House two years ago. Indeed, some of Obama’s biggest legislative achievements, healthcare and Wall Street reforms to name two, came during the president’s first two years in office when Democrats controlled Washington.

This year, Reid has made it clear that he wants to run some of Obama’s biggest ticket priorities through regular order -- a promise about which one GOP Senate aide said, “We’ll believe it when we see it.”

But Reid does need some Republican support to pass any sweeping legislation through his chamber and that’s where the GOP sees opportunity. A full debate on the Senate floor that allows Republicans to offer amendments and put votes on the record gives the GOP a chance to influence legislation and grab some spotlight for their ideas.

“It can’t just be about why Obama sucks,” one senior GOP Senate aide said. “It has to be about why Republicans should be trusted with more seats … and getting back to what we’re for and what we’re gonna do.”

Republicans are trying to get back to basics, talking in philosophical broad strokes and relinquishing the day-to-day battle they waged against Obama during the campaign.

Still, Republicans realize that between the Senate Democratic majority and Obama’s bully pulpit, they wield only so much influence. The best they can do is block and shape legislation.

“It’s difficult to tell you we have a grand legislative plan in the Senate when” as one senior GOP aide put it, “you don’t control things.”

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