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GOP Sees Progress in Trying to Reframe Debate

Damage control was the name of the game last week as Republicans in Congress and the White House sought to minimize the public disquiet over their handling of internal ethics woes, President Bush’s bid to overhaul Social Security, high gasoline prices, and Senate Republicans’ plan to end Democratic filibusters of judicial nominees.

In what GOP aides say was a coincidental confluence of events, Republicans in the House, Senate and White House executed a trifecta of public relations maneuvers in an attempt to turn around the battle for the American public’s hearts and minds, as well as to beat back the notion — floated by Democrats — that Republicans have been making a grab for more power following their successes in the 2004 elections.

“You could say it’s damage control, or you could say it’s our continued attempts to keep the message positive,” said one senior Senate GOP aide.

Similarly, a House Republican leadership aide acknowledged, “Over the last couple of weeks, we lost footing, but we’re regaining that ground now.”

Faced with daily assaults by Democrats and the media on the ethics of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) decided to roll back a controversial change in the ethics panel’s rules that critics say would have allowed the GOP to block investigations of its own Members.

“It’s akin to ripping the Band-Aid off really fast,” said one former top House Republican staffer, adding that House GOP leaders “won’t allow any distraction to fester to the point of harming the agenda.”

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) on Thursday touted his efforts to reach compromise with Democrats on the issue of judicial filibusters, just two days after a Washington Post/ABC News poll showed 66 percent of the public disagrees with the GOP’s plan to use the so-called “nuclear” option to end the use of the tactic.

“It just came to a natural climax this week,” explained the senior Senate Republican aide.

Bush, facing the lowest approval ratings of his presidency in part because of concern about the economy and his Social Security plan, held a prime-time televised press conference to push his plans to address soaring gas prices and allow younger workers to divert some of their Social Security taxes into private investment accounts.

“We all saw that Democrats were trying to use the ‘abuse of power’ weapon against us,” said the current House GOP leadership aide. “By coming to a realistic assessment on ethics, by the president being more engaged on energy and gas prices, and by Senate Republican leaders looking reasonable on [judicial filibusters], we’ve worked to take that away from them.”

The former top House GOP leadership staffer agreed. “It reinforces the point that Republicans are being constructive, while Democrats are being destructive. … It shows our willingness to compromise.”

Democrats mocked the Republican efforts, saying the public would view the GOP’s public relations attempts to shift focus as too little, too late.

“It’s become evident that there’s a minority within the Republican Party that’s turning off a great number of Americans,” said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “These recent efforts to overreach by Republicans in the House and Senate are having an extremely negative impact not only on their polling numbers, but the president’s polling numbers as well.”

It remains to be seen whether public opinion has been swayed either way by the three-pronged effort Republicans unleashed last week to try to regain the initiative on both political and policy debates.

“It was a step in the right direction. The question is whether we can sustain it,” said GOP pollster David Winston, a Roll Call contributor.

Though Republican aides said the damage control efforts were not coordinated, White House and Congressional officials have been in near daily contact over their strategy on Social Security, for example. And there is widespread agreement that the president injected himself into the judicial filibuster debate at the behest of Senate GOP leaders.

Winston said that while some of the recent polls on those issues were flawed for various reasons, “The polls have reflected an uncertain environment” in the economic and political worlds. For example, Winston said public opinion is divided over the good news that job creation has been on the upswing and the bad news that gas prices have been going up.

“What you’re seeing in public opinion is a split view,” Winston said.

The president’s press conference and Congressional GOP efforts to address public concerns begin “to define some of the discourse on those issues, but it’s going to take some time.”

Meanwhile, White House spokesman Trent Duffy denied that polls showing the public’s disapproval of the way Bush is handling the economy, as well as those showing his Social Security plan had yet to gain traction, had anything to do with the timing of Bush’s press conference Thursday.

“Did he decide to go out and address the nation based on polls?” Duffy asked. “He said he doesn’t make decisions based on polls.”

Still, Winston said Republican actions last week “were an aggressive and clear effort to let the people know” that Republicans are listening to their concerns about the economy and other political issues.

Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean said House Republicans will be stepping up their message on jobs and the economy next week, while the Senate is in a one-week recess.

Bonjean also pointed out that even amid all of the negative media coverage of DeLay’s ethics troubles, the president’s so-far unsuccessful attempt to get the public behind his Social Security overhaul plan, and public distaste for overruling Democrats’ use of the filibuster against Bush’s judicial nominees, local and national news prominently featured House passage of an energy policy bill two weeks ago.

“House Republicans will be talking every day [next week] about what we’re doing to promote jobs and the economy and address rising gas prices,” Bonjean said.

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