Moderate Course Mapped by GOP

Senators Eye Bipartisan Moves

Posted January 23, 2008 at 6:52pm

Correction Appended

Senate Republicans outlined a modest election-year agenda Wednesday based on the cooperative, bipartisan approach that new Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) has pushed while avoiding issues like immigration and earmark reform that have caused rifts within the party.

According to internal Conference e-mails and participants in a daylong, closed-door Conference retreat at the Library of Congress, Senate Republicans will rely largely on supporting legislation that has garnered bipartisan support regardless of who the lead sponsor is.

For instance, the agenda outlined in the meeting drew from bills identified by Alexander’s legislative director, David Morgenstern. In an e-mail sent to all members of the Conference last week, Morgenstern asked that the lawmakers provide Alexander with “Legislation that hasn’t passed the Senate yet … [and the Senator is] most interested in Republican legislation with Democratic co-sponsorship, but also interested in Dem-sponsored bills that your boss is the lead Republican on — if it’s something your boss really cares about.”

Alexander and other lawmakers Wednesday outlined a series of bills and issues they hope to pursue this year in a handful of areas including entitlement reform, health insurance, the creation of a two-year budget cycle and legislative steps Congress could take to keep “jobs from going overseas,” according to the agenda.

Alexander’s chief of staff, Tom Ingram, said the bills collected represented only part of leadership’s strategy, but he defended the overall bipartisan approach. “That is just one small piece of our research as we look for ways to make the Senate more effective and the Conference more successful. The people expect us to work together to get things done. One obvious place to do that is with legislation that is not only consistent with our principles but already has bipartisan support,” Ingram said.

Additionally, leadership aides said the Conference will continue to use Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) strategy of blockading votes on legislation that Republicans oppose.

During the Conference retreat, GOP pollsters Whit Ayres and Glen Bolger presented data they said indicated that much of the party’s 2006 electoral defeat was a result of circumstances outside of their control — most notably the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina — as well as the sense among voters that little of use was being done on their behalf in Washington, according to lawmakers.

Those conclusions run counter to data presented to the Conference last year by Roll Call contributing writer David Winston — who also made a presentation at Wednesday’s meeting — who argued that ethics and a belief that the GOP had lost its fiscal conservative roots played a significant part in the party’s electoral losses. (
See correction.

But despite Winston’s argument that fiscal restraint should be a hallmark of the party’s message this year, Republican leaders in the Senate appear to have opted to follow the advice of pollsters urging bipartisanship.

For instance, the agenda does not include any ethics or earmark reform proposals, two key issues for conservatives that have been taken up by both the White House and House GOP leaders over the past year.

In fact, Republican leaders and their supporters made it clear during the retreat that they would not support any effort by President Bush to strip earmarks from this year’s omnibus bill and saw no need to overhaul the practice. One Senator who participated in the meeting said leadership “dressed up” their support for earmarks by arguing any move to eliminate the earmarks would be an inappropriate infringement on Congress’ authority to appropriate funding.

According to this Senator and other sources, the fact that earmarks came up was a surprise to many Members, since leadership had indicated prior to the meeting that the issue would not be on the agenda. This lawmaker and several Senate aides familiar with the discussion said that some Members felt the discussion, which included Office of Management and Budget Chairman Jim Nussle, was purposefully limited to present a unified front to the Bush administration. “To the extent that the floor was open I didn’t hear much opposition,” the lawmaker said, adding that “I kept expecting to hear someone say ‘yeah but earmarks are evil,’ but I didn’t.”

However, a senior GOP leadership aide vehemently rejected that characterization, noting that numerous members spoke while Nussle was in the meeting and that McConnell had neither told Members they could not speak nor had he instructed other leaders to do so.

“There was a discussion as part of Director Nussle’s presentation. More than a dozen Senators spoke, and the discussion was wide-ranging. The discussion ended only after Senators were able to ask questions and provide feedback,” the aide said.

Alexander said Wednesday the agenda is a reflection of the party’s belief that voters would rather see results than partisan fighting. “Republican Senators are ready to roll up our sleeves and get to work,” he said, adding that the GOP will “work across party lines and get things done on some of the big issues Americans care about.”

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Ensign (Nev.) agreed, saying he is instructing candidates to tout bipartisanship over partisan issues in their campaigns. “One thing I’m telling folks … is that the American people are sick with the way Washington, D.C., does business,” Ensign said. “It’s healthy to have differences. … But don’t just be against something as a Republican because it’s a Democratic idea.”

Although one lawmaker present at the meeting said the agenda is based on “a sense that we really need to get some things accomplished,” this source acknowledged it could appear that Republicans are not looking to move their own agenda but rather for places where they can support Democrats.

Correction: Feb. 1, 2008

The article incorrectly characterized Republican consultant and Roll Call contributing writer David Winston’s presentations at the January 2007 and January 2008 Senate Republican retreats. New information provided to Roll Call makes clear that Winston cited the lack of Republican accomplishments, rather than the ethics issue, as the major factor behind the GOP’s 2006 electoral defeat.