January 27, 2006
House Republicans To Get Presentation On 'Suburban Agenda'
By Mort Kondracke

A different kind of agenda - different from the president's State of the Union address and the anticipated Democratic election year document - is scheduled to be unveiled early next month to House Republicans: "The Suburban Agenda."

It's the work of a group of 22 GOP Members from across the party's ideological spectrum and led by moderate Rep. Mark Kirk (Ill.), who's also tried to sell it to President Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove.

Instead of a laundry-list policy agenda, Kirk told me in an interview, this agenda is designed to answer the problems faced by a suburban family as it moves through its day.

Kirk represents Chicago's northern suburbs, and other members of the "suburban strategy caucus" represent the suburbs of such cities as New York, Philadelphia, Seattle, Cleveland, Atlanta and Denver.

There's clearly strategic political intent behind trying to build the 2006 GOP legislative strategy around the suburbs: More than half of U.S. voters live in the 'burbs, and these places, formerly Republican strongholds, have been trending Democratic in recent years.

As Fred Barnes pointed out in the Weekly Standard earlier this month, what Kirk calls the "inburbs" of major cities - as opposed to the more-distant exurbs - are increasingly Democratic.

Kirk's district was represented in the 1960s by current Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and for two decades by GOP Rep. John Porter. Kirk carried it with 64 percent of the vote in 2004 - far better than the 47 percent President Bush won in the district.

In the 2005 Virginia gubernatorial race, Democrat Tim Kaine won the close-in Washington, D.C., suburbs of Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax by huge margins. Of the 14 districts held by GOP representatives but carried by Democratic nominee John Kerry (Mass.) in 2004, virtually all are suburban. At the same time, there are 12 suburban districts held by Democrats that Bush carried. So it's not a stretch to say that suburban voters will decide who controls the House after this year's elections.

Kirk and others in the suburban caucus are scheduled to make the case for their agenda at the House GOP Members' retreat Feb. 9, which follows leadership elections Feb. 1.

Kirk had 20 issues of concern to suburbanites tested in his district and rated by GOP pollster John McLaughlin. McLaughlin is currently in the field with a more sophisticated poll of other suburbs to determine, for example, whether voters are willing to pay for proposals in the package.

At the end of the day, there is a "laundry list" of proposals - "20 defining issues to win the suburbs and keep our Republican majority," Kirk calls it. But he insists that he got there simply by tracing a day in suburbia.

"You wake up in the morning and you might turn on the radio and hear about Iraq and the war on terror and you want it solved, but then you think, 'OK, I've got to get to work,'" Kirk said.

"'How long does it take to get there? Am I going to drive by strip malls the whole way? Can't we have more open space?'" McLaughlin found that 83 percent of Kirk's constituents support limits on the lawsuits that delay Superfund environmental cleanups. Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.) is the caucus' open spaces presenter.

"I get to work," Kirk continued. "The average American has five jobs in a working life. If I switch, I don't want to be left high and dry without health insurance. Current COBRA regs allow me to pay for only 18 months of coverage? Why not indefinite?"

Portability of health insurance and expansion of health savings accounts got overwhelming support in McLaughlin's poll. Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) is the caucus expert in that area.

"Meanwhile, my kids went to school. My wife has probably looked up to see whether there's a pedophile in our neighborhood, but why shouldn't our school district be able to pay the federal government $50 to background check on new teachers and coaches?"

Also, the suburbs have an increased presence of youth gangs. In my district, Lake County, the 16th wealthiest in the country, has identified 3,000 members of international gangs. Why shouldn't the federal Bureau of Alchohol, Tobacco and Firearms not also be the Bureau of Gangs to help localities?

"We also need to clarify the 4th Amendment, so that privacy rights do not extend to school lockers, to make sure there are no weapons or drugs in school." Rep. Dave Reichert (Wash.), former sheriff of King County (Seattle), is the caucus' lead advocate on youth crime, which is also a theme of first lady Laura Bush.

Other items on the suburban agenda include a federal requirement that all medical records be made electronic by a certain date and a "401-Kids" tax-benefited savings plan allowing parents to set up accounts that children could use for purposes other than college tuition, which is now covered by 529 plans.

Kirk's poll found strong support for several kinds of tax credits - for first-time homebuyers, for computers and tutors for children and for new-career training for adults. Respondents also favored eliminating the estate tax. Significantly, the entire suburban agenda has not been costed-out and matched against the Republicans' stated goal of closing the federal budget deficit.

The agenda is designed to keep Republicans in power, but many of the items - electronic health records and anti-gang measures, for sure - ought to be bipartisan. It wouldn't be surprising if there's a bidding war for the support of the suburbs.

Mort Kondracke is the Executive Editor of Roll Call.

Mort Kondracke

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