Reporting from Washington — When he was leader of an enervated Republican minority in the House, John Boehner was fond of saying the members of his caucus weren't "legislators." They were "communicators."
Boehner meant that, without power, the GOP could do nothing but stand and shout. Now things have flipped. The Republicans are the ones with the sheer numbers to legislate — and now they will attempt to show a skeptical American public they can.
Thursday, they began their effort, as the House approved a resolution, 253-175, directing four committees to work on alternatives to the healthcare reform law Democrats passed last year.
The GOP maintains it can, using market-based proposals, cut insurance costs for most Americans, while expanding coverage — and while doing no damage to the federal budget deficit. Republicans say they also support some means to make sure consumers with preexisting medical conditions can find affordable coverage.
Speaking on Fox News on Wednesday night, Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.) said the GOP proposal would fall along the lines of some ideas offered during the last Congress. "We need to allow for the purchase across state lines of insurance products," he said. "We need to make sure that we have associated health plans so that small businesses can come together. We need to have pooling to deal with preexisting conditions. We need to expand medical savings accounts."
Some consumer advocates are especially wary of allowing insurance companies to sell their products nationally or regionally, warning it could lead to unregulated plans that provide little protection to policyholders with medical problems.
Another likely part of the GOP package — medical liability reform — will be the subject Thursday afternoon of a House Judiciary Committee hearing.
Republican leaders have conceded that they still have some work to do to convince voters that they are ready to govern, rather than simply obstruct. And recent polls back that up. A Wall Street Journal-NBC poll released Thursday showed that Americans don't expect much from House Republicans, with a majority of respondents believing they will be too inflexible in dealing with President Obama.
That tracks with a Washington Post-ABC News poll released earlier in the week that showed that the public trusts Obama more than Republicans to handle a range of issues, from the economy to national security. (On healthcare, the two were tied, meaning the GOP continues to have more credibility on that issue than any other.)
Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the new majority leader, has promised results. "As we've said before, we are a cut-and-grow Congress," Cantor said Wednesday evening. "We will cut spending and job-destroying regulation, and grow private-sector jobs and the economy. Repealing last year's healthcare law is a critical step."
Achieving much of anything will be difficult with a Democratic-run Senate on the other side of the Capitol. Cantor challenged Senate Majority Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to allow a floor vote on the repeal bill, something Reid isn't expected to do anytime soon. The GOP hopes that moderate Democrats who are concerned about their reelection in 2012 will push Reid for some sort of action on healthcare.
Reid called the repeal vote "nothing more than partisan grandstanding at a time when we should be working together to create jobs and strengthen the middle class." Last year, it was Republicans who chided Democrats for focusing too much on healthcare and neglecting the economy.
Democratic obstructionism in the Senate will pose another challenge to the GOP. Do Republicans try to tie up all action on the Hill until Reid relents? A furious debate will arrive in March, when Democrats will seek to raise the federal debt limit, which caps the amount the nation can borrow. And then the matter of funding the government for the remainder of the fiscal year will have to be dealt with.
Whether the GOP will risk gridlock, or even a government shutdown battle with Obama, while at the same time trying to prove to the American public that it's ready for prime time is a question that even Republicans, right now, can't answer. But it all could make for an interesting drama in a year where there's expected to be little in terms of tangible legislative results.