With their post-recess agenda scrambled and fissures exposed within their own conference, House Republican leaders will seek to shore up their conservative base this week with a multi-pronged message blitz.
Hoping to reverse their defensive stance of recent weeks, GOP leaders and key committee chairmen will make a series of appearances on talk radio, op-ed pages and in the blogosphere designed to reassure voters that they are staying true to their principles in a time of crisis.
“Conservatives need to hear from the Republican leadership that Congress is committed to fiscal responsibility and a true agenda of spending cuts and other items like immigration reform and a new energy bill,” said Ron Bonjean, spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
Those reminders to the GOP’s conservative base have been made necessary by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which has jammed the Senate schedule, hobbled the White House politically and prompted infighting among House Republicans over the appropriate balance between paying the still-undetermined costs of Katrina and minding the budgetary store.
Republicans came out of the August recess hoping to use the reconciliation process to emphasize their fiscal discipline while also pushing forward on immigration, Social Security and a handful of other key issues.
Reconciliation has been postponed until late October, but should still arrive in time to allow Republicans to tout their willingness to make tough cuts in mandatory spending. Prospects for the latter two issues are less clear given the current saturation coverage of Katrina and now Hurricane Rita.
“We’re going to try to stay the course with our message,” said House Republican Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio), adding that “Immigration is in the public consciousness [already]. The harder one to keep in the public consciousness is Social Security, and that’s still up in the air.”
GOP Conference Vice Chairman Jack Kingston (Ga.) said “Katrina definitely puts a new dynamic in there, as does Rita,” though he expressed confidence that the party “can walk and chew gum at the same time.”
As for the most immediate priorities, Kingston said they were dealing with the aftermath of Katrina, supporting the mission in Iraq and passing a bill or bills dealing with immigration and border security.
Aware that rising fuel prices have become a potential political liability, Kingston said the House also could move to pass “a gas tax-type reduction bill” as soon as this week.
Kingston said he believed there was still space in the current media environment to discuss Social Security and the rollout of the Medicare prescription drug program despite the overwhelming amount of coverage devoted to Katrina. He said that the local media, in particular, still provided opportunities to discuss non-hurricane related issues.
“People back home have a little Katrina news-cycle fatigue right now,” Kingston said.
But even when the saturation coverage of the floods and the rebuilding effort dies down, lawmakers are aware that the long-term issue of footing the reconstruction bill will dominate the debate for months to come.
It is that dynamic that has lent a powerful megaphone to the conservative Republican Study Committee, which has agitated for years in favor of reducing federal spending without receiving even a fraction of the attention it got last week.
That heavy dose of publicity has caused friction between the conservative group and the GOP leadership. After the RSC held a heavily publicized press conference Wednesday to tout a variety of potential spending offsets to pay for Katrina, the communications directors for the top four Republican leaders and a handful of key committees called in several RSC press aides to excoriate them.
Sources on both sides of the divide described the meeting as extremely heated.
“While completely agreeing with the need to find offsets, we felt that they weren’t [giving the party] enough credit for reducing spending and we were afraid that they were setting up Republicans to look like we were not stewards of fiscal responsibility,” said a leadership aide.
The leadership staffers also expressed worries that the entire party would be accused of endorsing all of the RSC’s proposals, which included delaying the implementation of the Medicare prescription drug bill and other controversial suggestions.
But the RSC aides who were called to the meeting complained that the leadership’s tactics were counterproductive and overly adversarial.
“We felt like the tone was condescending,” said an RSC aide. “As far as their claim that we weren’t carrying the message, we have a huge deficit, and I don’t think you can convince the American people that Republicans have done a good job if they’re the ones in power.”
By Friday, both sides of the dispute appeared to have calmed down, especially after the leadership indicated their desire to pursue offsets.
“There was a lot of heat last week,” said a leadership aide. “There was some confusion on both sides as to the intent of the [RSC] effort. We both want the same thing: we want to reduce spending and we want to work together.”
Another GOP leadership aide said this week’s message blitz would aim to remind voters of the party’s record over the past decade while also promoting new policies. “We need to be sure we remind our Members and our base where we are and how we got here,” the aide said.
Pryce said that the leadership agreed with the RSC about the importance of fiscal discipline but also understood the need to be realistic about what level of cuts would be politically feasible.
“To be real, we can only save what we can pass,” she said.
The key to success, according to lawmakers and aides, is to convey a cost-containment effort just as exhaustive as the one already under way to rebuild and recover from Katrina.
“What our base wants to see is action,” Kingston said. “The great thing about budget deficit reduction battles is that you get a lot of credit just for trying.”