In a speech at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, House Majority… (Mark Wilson, Getty Images )
WASHINGTON — The second-ranking Republican in the House, in a speech Tuesday intended to unveil a new strategy for the politically hobbled party, cast the GOP as an advocate for improving the lives of working Americans even as he reaffirmed its insistence on balancing the federal budget.
The heavily promoted address by Majority Leader Eric Cantor marked the latest attempt by a Republican to reframe the party's postelection agenda. And it was the most significant to date by a leader of the institution Americans see as the epicenter of political dysfunction: Congress.
The Virginia representative, noting that fights on Capitol Hill have centered on "cliffs, debt ceilings and budgets," maintained there "is no greater moral imperative" than reducing the nation's debt. But he said the time had come "to focus our attention on what lies beyond these fiscal debates."
Cantor, speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, said the party must define itself in more approachable terms. "It has gotten a lot tougher to raise a family here in America. Our goal should be to eliminate this doubt gripping our nation's families, and to restore their hope and confidence," he said.
"Making Life Work," as Cantor called the agenda, was primarily based on initiatives the GOP has pushed before — with one key exception. On immigration, Cantor indicated for the first time that he would support a path to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants.
Before the address, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) encouraged Republicans to "pay attention" to Cantor's remarks.
"If we're going to connect with the American people, it's important that they see not only that we're serious about solving our debt problem, but we're serious about addressing issues like energy, like education, to show really the breadth of the efforts that we're involved in," Boehner said.
Democrats dismissed the speech as another failed "rebranding" effort — the fourth, by the count of Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). "The brand that the Republican Party now carries with the American people is a party that refuses to compromise," he said. "If they're going to keep the same policies, and rebranding is simply different rhetoric, more poll-tested rhetoric … then it will not help the economy or our country."
Delivered a week before President Obama's State of the Union address, Cantor's speech had some presidential flourishes. He pointed to members of the audience who represented the initiatives Republicans hope to advance — increasing the use of charter schools to help "the most vulnerable"; expanding a visa program to allow foreign nationals with advanced degrees to stay in the U.S.; giving more hourly workers flexibility to spend more time with their families; and simplifying the tax code.
During a series of television interviews intended to highlight his message, Cantor acknowledged that his party had become too closely identified with line items in the federal budget.
"Talking about numbers has been our way in the past of saying, 'Hey, we want to do something about it,'" he said on CNBC. While on MSNBC he said, "Where we have a lot of room to grow as a party, as conservatives, is to explain again why we're for the kind of fiscal discipline that we're for — what is the reality and how are we going to help people?"
Cantor has made similar speeches in the past, but setting a new course could be more important than ever this year. In 2012, the Obama campaign succeeded in part on a strategy that tied Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney to unpopular policies advocated by the GOP-led House. That connection was underscored when Romney selected House Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) as his running mate.
Republicans say they are under increased pressure to give voters a reason to keep them in power.
"I like my accountant. I appreciate my accountant. But I don't love my accountant. And he usually brings me pretty stern news," said Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a former head of the House GOP campaign committee. "Our brand is at a very low rating right now, and I think how we perform in this House, and what our image is going into the election, will have a lot to do with whether or not we retain the majority."
Whereas Obama's job approval rating has hovered above 50% over the last month, polls conducted recently continued to show congressional approval ratings no higher than the mid-teens.
The president has also continued to use his bully pulpit to push his argument. Just hours before Cantor was set to deliver his remarks, the White House announced the president would speak to reporters. His remarks aired live on cable news networks, at the same time the GOP leader was on C-SPAN2.