House GOP at 2014 Crossroads: Go Big, or Keep Quiet?

Republicans finally want to move big, bold legislation. But with midterm elections looming, will Boehner let them?

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) (C) is surrounded by U.S. Capitol Police plainclothes officers as he arrives at the U.S. Captiol October 11, 2013.
National Journal
Tim Alberta
Jan. 16, 2014, midnight

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.”

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