House Republicans had a plan this week: Show a more workable side to Congress by highlighting a charter-schools bill written and passed together with Democrats. The timing was good. Not only is it National Charter Schools Week, but Mother's Day is Sunday.
Yet the message may be trampled as House leaders also take up measures relating to the IRS investigation and the Benghazi attack, both combustible partisan issues. The move has Democrats — and some Republicans — complaining that the schools bill, and the cohesion it represents, now appears to be an afterthought.
"It's very unfortunate that a truly bipartisan charter-school bill that will help our nation's children is being overshadowed by the hollow and toxic Republican agenda, which fails to address the real concerns of America's middle class," said Rep. George Miller, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
Some Republicans have also complained about the timing and the mix of legislation GOP leaders are bringing to the floor this week, saying the schools bill is sure to be drowned out. "We're burying in all of this stuff one of the first significant bipartisan pieces of legislation this Congress has been able to do," complained one senior House GOP aide.
In fact, the aide said there have been discussions among House Republicans that it might be better to delay action on the charter-schools bill, but Majority Leader Eric Cantor has rejected that.
House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions of Texas acknowledged on Tuesday that the initial strategy was to highlight the Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act and the bipartisanship work that went into it. Cosponsored by Miller and House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline of Minnesota, the bill is designed to streamline and modernize existing charter-school programs, provide states and localities more support for grants and planning, and better share best practices.
The bill will still get a vote Thursday or Friday, but Sessions said recent events led to a shift in emphasis. "I don't think we are stepping on our message at all," he said, adding that the bipartisanship involved in the bill has created a "real opportunity" to bolster access to such schools.
But Miller disagrees: "Republican leadership has proven time and time again that they are more interested in partisan attacks than they are in legislating."
And indeed the more-partisan measures the House will address this week are sure to grab headlines. The House will vote on whether to create a special committee to investigate the 2012 Benghazi attacks. Republicans last week pegged the action to recently released emails they say represent new evidence that the White House pushed misleading information about the attack.
The House will also address two separate Republican resolutions this week resurrecting the issue of whether the Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative groups. One calls for Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the IRS affair, and the other recommends that former IRS official Lois Lerner be held in contempt of Congress. At least one of them may get a vote on Wednesday.
There's also a bill set for a vote this week to make permanent a research and development tax credit for businesses, without offsetting the costs. The idea perturbs Democrats who might otherwise support the measure because, they note, Republicans have been insisting that any extension of federal unemployment insurance be fully paid for.
In fact, the administration issued a veto threat against the tax-credit measure, saying that would add $156 billion to the deficit over 10 years. The statement also said such a deficit increase "is more than 15 times the cost of the proposed extension of the emergency unemployment benefits."
Asked whether Kline himself believes his schools bill is being crowded out of the limelight, a committee spokeswoman, Alexandra Sollberger, responded with a statement saying the chairman is "excited" to see the bill come up for a vote "during National Charter Schools Week."
"As you know, strengthening the federal Charter School Program to support the growth and expansion of more quality charter schools is a long-standing priority, and members on both sides of the aisle look forward to passing H.R. 10 with overwhelming bipartisan support later this week," she said.
Another House Republican aide said that lawmakers will still hold events in their districts talking about passage of the bill, and that she believes few people outside of the Capitol pay much attention to the scheduling of floor action.
Rory Cooper, a spokesman for Cantor, who as majority leader sets the floor schedule, rejected the idea that the charter-schools bill is being overshadowed, telling a reporter, "I don't understand the premise of your conclusion, because the House is passing overwhelmingly bipartisan legislation to help kids access charter schools and legislation to encourage job growth and innovation, while also conducting our constitutional oversight function."
But Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, said, "House Republicans never fail to step on their own message when they let the tea party grab the gavel and go nuts. As part of their "˜Conspiracy Week' in the House, Republicans will continue their attempts to exploit the tragedy in Benghazi for political gain and divert attention away from their own do-nothing record."