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Republicans ready to flex new muscle in Congress

Balancing the demands of the party's base against the economic worries of many voters could be tricky.

January 04, 2011|By Lisa Mascaro and Kathleen Hennessey, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — Stepping into the spotlight of a new Congress this week, freshly empowered Republicans are vowing to undo much of the work of the last Congress and launch investigations into a raft of Obama administration programs.

But their heavily partisan strategy runs the risk of alienating voters who are more concerned about jobs. At a moment when Republicans finally have the attention of economically beleaguered Americans, they will spend the time on an effort to repeal the healthcare overhaul, challenges to federal regulations and a reading of the Constitution on the House floor.

The plans give voice to the party's pent-up frustrations after two years of a Democratic Congress, but they speak at best indirectly to the economic concerns of many voters. Because of the importance of first impressions, incoming House Speaker John A. Boehner (R- Ohio) must somehow balance demands of the GOP base with the concerns of other voters.

Just how Boehner will attempt that was previewed in opening salvos over the healthcare debate. While not proposing a jobs package, Republicans plan to frame every issue in terms of its economic effect. Carbon emission regulations will kill industry, they argue. Deficit reduction will eventually allow for tax cuts.

"It's all intertwined," said David Winston, a Boehner advisor. "I think what you're going to see is Republicans looking at a lot of issues through the lens of, 'What does this do for job creation and economic growth?' Those two items are going to be just clearly linked all the way through."

Democrats are keenly aware of the difficulties of this approach. President Obama spent much of last year describing his legislative agenda — including a financial regulatory overhaul and the healthcare bill — as directly aimed at economic recovery.

"Americans didn't believe him," said Democratic consultant Steve Elmendorf. "You can say that fixing the financial regulatory system is working on the economy. But where you have to make a bank shot like that, it's harder to convince people."

Neither party appears to have many options for directly spurring job growth. Both sides are experiencing spending fatigue, and the extension of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts is expected to be the last tax bill in the foreseeable future.

House Republican leaders decided Monday to schedule a vote for next week on a repeal of the healthcare overhaul, moving ahead on the plans even before new members are sworn in Wednesday.

The repeal bill is expected to pass the House but stall in the Senate, where Democrats remain in the majority.

Democrats, who have acknowledged they bungled efforts to promote the healthcare law last year, welcome the chance to try again. In a letter to Boehner, Democratic senators said Monday they would block any attempt to repeal the legislation.

"We urge you to consider the unintended consequences that the law's repeal would have on a number of popular consumer protections that help middle-class Americans," wrote Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the majority leader.

But a drawn-out rehash of the healthcare debate carries political risks for both sides, with polls showing public opinion divided on the law.

Boehner has downplayed the ceremonial aspect of his rise to power, eschewing parties in favor of a "bipartisan prayer service" Wednesday morning at St. Peter's Catholic Church near the Capitol.

Several House Republicans, including Boehner and incoming House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), were invited to an evening reception with a concert by singer LeAnn Rimes on Tuesday at a downtown hotel, according to the Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog group that tracks congressional fundraisers. Boehner's office said he was not scheduled to attend, and Cantor's staff said his schedule was in flux.

Once members are sworn in, the GOP's first official act will be passage of the chamber's rules package — an initial attempt by the new majority to establish a tone for the House.

Among the new rules are those that speak directly to the "tea party" activists who helped fuel the GOP's rise, including one that requires that all bills be posted online for 72 hours prior to votes.

Rules also will establish limited terms for members serving as committee chairmen, a GOP practice from the 1990s. Another rule will ban former members who have become lobbyists from using the House gym.

The rules also will strip the nonvoting delegate from the District of Columbia of the ability to cast advisory votes on the House floor, a limited privilege that had been granted under Democratic control.

In one of the more substantive rule changes, GOP leaders will require that any new spending be covered by budget cuts and not tax increases. The Republican "cut-as-you-go" rule will replace the Democrats' so-called pay-as-you-go rule.

But GOP leaders strategically exempted the healthcare law, which is expected to produce savings. Thus, repeal would erase the forecast savings, adding to the federal deficit. However, the added costs would not have to be offset under the Republican rules.

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

kathleen.hennessey@latimes.com

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