At Retreat, GOP Aims to Erase Its "Obstructive" Image

At Retreat, GOP Aims to Erase Its "Obstructive" Image
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CAMBRIDGE, Md. -- Facing a midterm election in which their party stands to increase its majority in Congress, House Republicans are trying to reform their image as the party of obstruction.

“It’s important that we show the American people that we’re not just the opposition party, we’re the alternative party,” House Speaker John Boehner told reporters at a resort here on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where he and fellow conference members have gathered for their annual retreat. As part of this strategy, Minority Leader Eric Cantor said the House will vote on a Republican alternative to the health care law sometime this year. 

This recalibration of sorts comes a year after national Republicans endeavored to rebrand the party after devastating losses at the ballot box, especially among women, Latino voters, and young people. Last January, the House GOP huddled in Williamsburg, Va., to unite a fractured and obstinate conference. But 2013 ended up being a bad year for Republicans, who paid a price in public opinion polls for their role in shutting down the government for more than two weeks.

Now wielding what they see as an effective campaign tool -- troubles with the Affordable Care Act -- the party is trying to sharpen its focus on Obamacare while softening its own unfavorable image with the public. The phrase “alternative party” has been used by several members who have briefed the press between meetings that feature pollsters, conservative columnists, legendary football coach Lou Holtz, and TED talks. The kickoff for this new emphasis came earlier in the week, when leaders tapped Cathy McMorris Rodgers to deliver a “hopeful” GOP response to the president’s State of the Union address.

The chairman of the GOP’s campaign arm, Rep. Greg Walden, insisted that the party would pick up seats in the House this year, and part of the strategy to do so involves a more nuanced message. “If we’re just seen as the opposition party … we miss a great opportunity to woo voters over to our side,” Walden said. “You need something positive to run on.”

At the same time, there are still big question marks among lawmakers about how to approach key issues coming down the pike, most notably immigration reform and the debt ceiling, and how to coalesce around one alternative health care bill.

Boehner is scheduled to present his conference with a set of principles on immigration reform, the first sign of movement on the issue since the House dismissed a Senate-passed comprehensive bill last June.

“How we deal with it is going to be critically important,” Boehner said, noting that the party recognized after the 2012 election that it was time to address immigration. Members are still opposed to the Senate bill -- which included a 13-year path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants -- but are interested in a path to legal status (conditioned upon border security requirements) and increased access to visas for highly skilled workers.

The prospect of a vote on a bill is “probably months out,” Walden said when asked about the politics of legislation at a time when some members will be facing primary challenges.

Meanwhile, Republicans are trying to figure out a leverage point on the debt ceiling, which Treasury officials say needs to be raised next month. President Obama and Democrats insist they will not negotiate on the borrowing limit, and are asking for a “clean” increase.

Boehner said he would discuss a way forward with members, and would not describe what concessions they would seek from Democrats. But, he said, “we believe that defaulting on our debt is the wrong thing.” Several Republican lawmakers here have suggested the Senate move first with a debt-limit proposal. “They are going to have to put something forward that they would say, OK, this could be acceptable to Republicans,” said Indiana Rep. Marlin Stutzman. But he also added that “no Republican I’ve talked to wants to default on our debt.” 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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