House majority leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) speaks at the John F. Kennedy… (Steven Senne, Associated…)
WASHINGTON — As the new Congress began this year, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia sought to redefine the Republican Party as focused on "making life work" for ordinary Americans.
Surveys showed that the public had tired of the party of "no" as House Republicans fought President Obama. The party lost its opportunity to win the White House or take control of the Senate last fall, and saw its House majority shrink.
Cantor's approach echoed the "compassionate conservatism" of an earlier Republican era. In a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, he said the House majority would "pursue an agenda based on a shared vision of creating the conditions for health, happiness and prosperity for more Americans and their families."
That ambitious goal ran smack into political reality Wednesday as conservative lawmakers rejected a Republican bill to help Americans with preexisting health conditions gain access to insurance coverage.
Republican leaders had to abruptly yank the bill from consideration because they did not have enough votes from their rank and file to pass it. The episode was another example of the difficulty the Republican Party faces in corralling its unruly majority and finding a common message to attract voters.
Although rebellious lawmakers have bucked their leaders at crucial moments, this was the first time they had rejected part of Cantor's effort to rebrand the party.
"We're going to continue to work the bill," Cantor spokesman Doug Heye said. "We had positive conversations today and made good progress."
The legislation, which Cantor and other Republican leaders backed, was a classic Washington maneuver — just the kind of compromise that Republican newcomers in the House have repeatedly rejected.
Unable to overturn the president's healthcare law, as many Republicans wanted, GOP leaders countered with a bill that would redirect money from the health law to help fund a national high-risk insurance pool, an effort Republicans have supported on the state level.
But the bill drew mixed reviews from conservative groups.
FreedomWorks, a tea party umbrella group, welcomed it as "a tactical maneuver in a larger war, cannibalizing the implementation of Obamacare exchanges in order to gain leverage in the larger fight for healthcare freedom."
On the other side, the Club for Growth warned against taking from one government program to start another. The club, especially feared for its war chest that finances challengers in primaries, urged a "no" vote.
Conservative lawmakers lined up against it. Last-minute attempts to amend the bill helped, but not enough, aides said. Democrats mostly opposed the bill, and the White House threatened a veto.
The bill's stumble came as many Republican lawmakers were headed to Dallas to attend Thursday's dedication of the presidential library and museum of George W. Bush, one of the last GOP proponents of "compassionate conservatism."
Republican leaders had little choice but to pull the bill from consideration and try again in May, after lawmakers return from a weeklong recess.
Cantor, when asked about the bill's prospects earlier in the day, balanced the party's "making life work" approach with its hard-charging spirit.
"We're trying to find solutions here," he said. "We don't believe in Obamacare, and we want to stop Obamacare."