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GOP Adapting to Minority

After some early stumbles on message and strategy, Republican Senators say they are beginning to understand their new role as a minority party and are coming to terms with the set of tactics they must employ as they take on the Democratic majority in the 110th Congress.

Senators acknowledge the transition out of power has not been easy in the first two months of the session, especially after a dozen years spent almost entirely in control of the chamber. Many Senate Republicans have never even served in the minority, and those who have are now forced to revisit the practices of the past.

“The reality is setting in,” said a senior GOP leadership aide.

Republicans have been working privately to hone a line of attack that keeps Members focused on a singular and simple message while working to identify and exploit Democratic divisions on legislation. And like their Democratic counterparts’ minority strategy of the previous Congress, GOP leaders are focused on putting into practice a legislative agenda around which all members of the Republican Conference — moderate to conservative — can rally.

Sources familiar with the strategy said Republicans have come to the realization that they can’t waste any time learning how to act in the minority, given there are less than two years until the 2008 elections. Republicans must, at minimum, protect 21 seats and pick up at least two of the Democrats’ seats this cycle to regain control.

“We’re sticking together now,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.). “There is a sense that we have to do things differently in the minority and we are getting there. We’re not there yet entirely, but we’re getting there.”

“We have to understand that as the loyal opposition, the insurgent party, we have to begin to act in a way that enables us to shape legislation,” noted Senate Chief Deputy Minority Whip John Thune (S.D.). “I think that’s coming.”

Thune is a member of the class of 2004 and, like many in the chamber, has never served in the minority.

Initially this Congress, Senate Republicans believed they had a workable strategy that allowed them to win key battles on Democratic legislation by, for example, adding tax breaks to a minimum-wage increase and pushing certain provisions to the ethics overhaul measure. But success in those somewhat bipartisan negotiations broke down in recent weeks when Republican and Democratic leaders hit an impasse over how to debate President Bush’s proposed troop increase in Iraq.

“I will give them some credit for hanging together in their opposition to the American public’s desire to change the course in Iraq,” said Jim Manley, spokesman to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “Beyond that, there isn’t much to write home about yet.”

A GOP leadership aide said that without question there has been “a readjustment period” for Members who weren’t prepared for minority party status and “it took a little bit of time getting acclimated.”

And at least at the outset, Republicans weren’t winning the public relations battle with headlines highlighting their internal party divisions and stumbles over procedural maneuvering. Since then, however, Democrats also have been forced to work through their own splintering — a shift met with glee by the GOP in both chambers.

House and Senate Democrats are continuing to work through their Iraq plans, and while it’s circumstances or strategy or both, Republicans say they have found an advantage in a constant message that centers on supporting funding for the troops in the region. That consistency, they argue, has unified their Conference, which otherwise remains far from together on the president’s overall policy on the conflict.

Sen. John Cornyn (Texas) said the Republicans “are starting to get our sea legs” and acknowledged that “it can be a little demoralizing to be in the minority.” But Cornyn, the Conference vice chairman, said his party is starting to find a way to work without the power of the gavel — including by sticking together when it can on the issues, staying loyal to their message and, all the while, hoping for Democrats to falter.

What’s more, Republicans have to show deference to their moderate Senators facing tough re-elections in states that easily could shift to the Democratic majority, he said.

“We have to give some flexibility to those in cycle in those states of particular challenge,” Cornyn said. Referencing the GOP’s ability to block Senate action, he added: “It’s nice to have all 49, but all we need is 41. We have to talk to one another and be responsive to people’s needs.”

Republican Senators acknowledged Tuesday that while they are starting to come together on a workable minority strategy, they have by no means cracked the code nor will they be able to avert slip-ups altogether in the months ahead. They also say they cannot rely on Democrats’ mistakes.

“We can’t count on it,” Thune said. “We have to figure out how to do this on our own. We have to be able to take the tools at our disposal and fight back. Those are the lessons we are learning and will continue to learn.”

It appears that the GOP faithful may be starting to take notice.

At a closed-door Republican leadership meeting Tuesday, Senators discussed how the party base is starting to recharge and re-engage with them after losing both chambers to the Democrats in November. The Senate is of particular interest to GOP voters given the margin of control is so narrow, and it is in that chamber where key decisions such as judicial nominations are determined.

Afterward, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has served in both the majority and the minority in his long tenure, said he believes the climate is beginning to shift — at least within his party’s own ranks.

“In my 22 years, I have never seen the Republican support groups more enthusiastic about our work,” he said. “They are feeling good and that’s the first step that we are coming back.”

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Ensign (Nev.) said he, too, believes the momentum is beginning to build, and, at least in political circles, Republicans are beginning to get excited again about the party’s chances. He said fundraising is starting to pick up and calls are starting to come in from party devotees.

“A lot of our supporters took for granted what it meant to have a Democratic majority,” Ensign said. “We are seeing it, and we are feeling it.”

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