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House GOP Treads Unfamiliar Path

For the first time since President Bush was elected, a House GOP Conference that has prided itself on constantly playing offense appears likely to spend much of its time through November playing defense.

Unlike the previous three years, Republican lawmakers will likely make it through 2004 without pushing through any major legislative initiatives and are instead poised to spend far more time preserving or defending their past accomplishments — and their stewardship of the economy — than selling new policies.

Republican Members and aides disputed the idea that they have lost their aggressiveness, arguing that they plan to move forward on a variety of fronts in 2004 to improve the economy and contrast their agenda with that of House Democrats.

“We do have bills in the works that are going to be big and bold and are going to be good for the economy,” said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), the Deputy Majority Whip in charge of dealing with coalitions.

But they also concede that they have already pushed into law their flagship initiatives on education (the No Child Left Behind Act), health care (the Medicare prescription drug bill) and tax cuts. Nothing Republicans do this year in any of those three areas will be of similar stature, though they attribute that more to electoral politics than a lack of aggressiveness.

“There’s clearly a sense that this time we’re going to be engaged in presidential politics more,” said Chief Deputy Majority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.). “It is going to be different because of that.”

Rogers attributed any perception that Republicans are on the run to the fact that the primary season has allowed Democrats and their criticisms to hog the spotlight for months.

“They want you to believe we’re on defense, but we’re on offense,” said Rogers. “What we’ve had is a monologue. … In a dialogue, we win.”

While it is not unusual for the House to tackle a lighter load in an election year, House Republicans are in the unusual position of having to expend much of their efforts defending what they’ve already done.

When President Bush signed the Medicare prescription drug bill late last year, Republicans expressed confidence that the measure would go some way toward eroding the traditional Democratic advantage on health care issues.

But public reaction to the law has been mixed. Although Republicans strongly disagree with media suggestions that the bill is unpopular, they do not dispute the fact that many Americans are having trouble understanding the bill.

As a result of that confusion, House GOP lawmakers are continually being reminded by their leadership that they must hold town-hall meetings and do everything they can to convince their constituents that the Medicare law will help rather than hurt them.

Some Republicans privately concede that their message effort during the Medicare fight was less aggressive than it normally might have been because the party was too busy convincing its own Members to support the bill.

“I think we became a little complacent and dependent on the White House,” said a senior House GOP aide. “In the past, communications seemed to be much more in depth. There was a more united front on messaging.”

At the same time, many Republicans argue that the Medicare measure will serve to put the Democrats on the run.

“It certainly does not put us in a defensive position but rather the opposite,” said Jonathan Grella, spokesman for Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). “Democrats will have to explain their opposition to it.”

On taxes, House Republicans are now working to extend the cuts they’ve already passed. They believe that they will be able to cast Democrats who oppose the extension as being in favor of tax increases.

Yet even if Republicans succeed in preserving and extending the cuts, aides concede, such a victory would not have nearly the same media impact that the original passage did.

And extending the tax cuts will also require making room for them in the fiscal 2005 budget, which will itself be shaped by GOP leaders being buffeted by a number of competing outside pressures.

Even more so this year than in past ones, Republicans see this year’s budget as the key to the entire agenda.

“If you look at where the priority is this year, it is on the budget,” said Cantor. “It is trying to keep the lid on spending.”

That desire to limit spending growth and attack deficits is widespread among House Republicans, but this year’s effort has also been fueled by withering outside criticism of the GOP’s economic stewardship.

While Democrats have spent the last few years blaming Republicans for mounting deficits, House GOP lawmakers have been dismissive of such attacks. But late last year, many conservative groups and opinion leaders began joining the chorus of criticism.

In early discussions within the Republican Conference about the budget, fiscal conservatives demanded that the spending blueprint include cuts or at least a freeze in non-Defense discretionary spending. Moderates, meanwhile, said such a freeze would be acceptable only if the defense budget was also on the table.

But when Budget Chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) tried to move forward with a plan that shaved half of 1 percent off Bush’s defense request, he faced revolt from yet another faction — Armed Services Committee members — and was forced to match the administration’s number.

Now, the budget’s path has been temporarily slowed by lawmakers’ demands that the House also move a bill to reform the entire budget process.

The other major item on the near-term House agenda — the FSC/ETI bill — is again more a reactive measure than a proactive one. While Republicans have named it the American Jobs Creation Act and have touted its potential economic benefits, the ultimate purpose of the bill is to avoid threatened sanctions from the World Trade Organization.

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