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GOP Senators Stressing Reform

Having licked their wounds from the 2006 election, Senate GOP leaders are trying to reposition their party by assembling a strategic blueprint that unifies their right and center and restores the “reform party” mantle that won them majorities a dozen years ago.

Senate Republicans will huddle at their Conference retreat on Feb. 2 to determine the details of their strategy, but GOP leaders already are canvassing the rank and file to collect ideas and form legislative priorities for the next two years.

Broadly speaking, the Republican leadership wants to hone in on earlier party themes of lower taxes, less government and a stronger national security, while embracing a kinder, gentler tone many believe was lost over the past few Congresses.

“We’re looking at how to operate in the minority,” acknowledged one senior Senate Republican leadership source.

The self-reflection comes two months after Republicans lost control of both chambers of Congress. Senate Republicans are hoping they can overcome the odds by holding onto 21 GOP-held seats in 2008 and even picking up the two seats necessary to regain control of the chamber.

“We need to return to our roots, but we also need to appeal to the values that are important to the center,” said a senior GOP Senate aide. “It’s a delicate balancing act.”

As such, Republicans are looking beyond just laying out legislative priorities and reframing the party message.

They also are moving away from a top-down leadership style by soliciting the views of their rank-and-file members and trying to come up with ways to involve more Senators in legislating and communicating — a move that includes showcasing their 20 incumbents up for re-election.

Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), who as Republican Conference chairman is helping lead efforts to infuse the new party strategy with the views of his colleagues, said Republicans don’t have to reinvent the wheel despite their new status in the minority.

Kyl said Republicans “are together on most issues,” and can easily coalesce around a series of core principles.

However, Kyl conceded the challenge for Republicans is coming up with an agenda in which all Republicans are invested. “We are never going to be in 100 percent agreement, but on most things, we are generally pretty unified.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) already has begun laying the groundwork for a new GOP brand, telling the Republican National Committee winter meeting last week that the party strategy must focus on reclaiming its label as the party of reform.

McConnell acknowledged then that the stakes are high: “In my view, minority status isn’t our biggest cause for concern,” he said. “In the long run, the public’s perception of the Republican Party is more dangerous.”

The reform mantle is the same message that helped usher the party into historic majorities in 1994 during the so-called Republican Revolution.

What’s more, it is a platform GOP leaders believe is acceptable to all party factions and can serve as a unifying theme for the Republican agenda over the next two years.

Still, Senate Republicans acknowledge they face two major hurdles in trying to find unity in a sea of conservatives and moderates, especially with a presidential election two years away.

Not only do they face the daunting burden of tamping down public divisions on the Iraq War, but also they must wrestle with Senate presidential hopefuls trying to lay down individual platforms for 2008.

One former Senate GOP leadership aide said the new leaders have a near-impossible task of finding cooperation and ensuring the Conference takes positions that appeal broadly to the electorate.

“It is an uphill battle for various reasons,” the former aide said. “You have [at least] two Members running for president, four or five thinking about retiring and also have a good chunk of the caucus that is upset with the president and how he’s handled the war.

“It ain’t fun being in the minority right now, but also ain’t fun being the Republican leader. It’s a heck of a job trying to herd all of the cats, which are going in different directions.”

McConnell sent signals at the outset of the 110th Congress that he believes his Conference shares more commonalities than it does differences. Sources said the new GOP leader also has made clear that he wants Republicans to air their differences behind closed doors, and to him directly, before they erupt onto the front pages.

One early example of that came last week when McConnell summoned 10 Republicans — of varying political views — to his office to try to strike accord on Bush’s proposal to increase troop levels in Iraq.

No consensus was reached and it probably is too late to bring in some of the outspoken moderates and vulnerable incumbents, but the outreach underscored the new leader’s interest in bridging Conference divides, GOP Senate sources said.

Conference Vice Chairman John Cornyn (Texas), the No. 5 Senate GOP leader, said he believes Republicans don’t need to move in lockstep to move forward, given the vast differences of their individual states and constituencies. But, he said, Republican leaders understand they need to focus on their commonalities, and will be identifying and highlighting those issues in the coming weeks.

“We recognize the need for some flexibility on our part for those who are up in 2008 as we attempt to hold on to 41 votes on the things that really matter to us — and that’s on our core principles,” Cornyn said.

Democrats aren’t wasting any time taking advantage of GOP defections and they readily admit they will look for opportunities to force Republicans to take unsavory positions.

“We now have the ability to set the agenda, but with that not only do we have the ability to define the debate, but we can also set the terms of the debate and force Republicans into potentially tough votes,” said a senior Democratic Senate aide.

“The question is how closely do [moderates] want to be aligned with Republicans and a Republican president over the next two years,” the Democratic aide said. “You can bet your last dollar Republicans are more interested in keeping their own seats then burnishing his legacy.”

Even with all the internal focus on uniting the party, divisions in the GOP ranks have already blown up before the party’s eyes over Bush’s latest Iraq proposal to increase troop levels in the region by 21,500.

And House Republicans, in particular, have had little success keeping their Members uniformly opposed to the Democrats’ “100 hours” agenda of a minimum wage increase, ethics reforms and a decrease in interest rates on student loans.

House GOP leaders appear to be struggling even more profoundly in their newfound minority status — a position that is perhaps even more difficult to stomach in a chamber where their party now holds very little influence.

One Republican leadership aide said for the GOP to find success, it will have to strike the appropriate balance between the right and the center. This staffer described the next two years as less about “firing up the base, but not eroding it. It’s about not being so strident on things and changing the perception that we’re not just fighting, but doing.”

Another GOP leadership aide said, “It’s not just about reacting, but restoring the confidence of independents in Congress and overall and defining what Republican values are and what separates us from the Democrats.”

Sen. John Ensign (Nev.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, doesn’t appear worried about GOP infighting, nor does he believe moderate incumbents will be alienated within the conservative-leaning Conference.

“It’s important we stand for principles and not politics,” Ensign said. “I believe good principles lead to good politics. There are things that unify us.”

Senate Republicans have a key advantage over their House colleagues, even as they grapple with how best to galvanize their own. With a 49-seat minority in a chamber that requires just 41 votes to filibuster legislation, they can allow a handful of their seatmates to side with the majority.

Still, Senators and aides alike acknowledge that they prefer to hold their ranks together against the majority party.

“There are some folks here who haven’t been in the minority and for them, it’s on-the-job training,” said a Republican leadership aide. “What’s happening in real time is we are figuring out who we are as a minority.”

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