Is the House GOP Stepping on Its Own Message?

A bipartisan schools bill ticketed for the limelight will instead be overshadowed by more polarizing measures.

Caption:US Congressman Eric Cantor, R-VA, walks to a meeting at Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on October 16, 2013. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Wednesday that a deal had been reached with Republican leaders to end a fiscal impasse that has threatened the United States with default.
National Journal
Billy House
May 6, 2014, 5:52 p.m.

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.”

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