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Senate GOP Lies Low

As their House counterparts publicly struggle with a path forward, Senate Republican leaders have modified their own election-year road map with plans to keep their heads down, soften their partisan attacks and promote ideas-based initiatives they hope will avert a wipeout in November.

GOP Senators say they cannot — in the face of daunting electoral odds this cycle — risk embracing their bomb-throwing ways of the past. Plus, they say, the only way to try to ensure their incumbents’ re-election is to convince voters that they, too, are tired of the partisanship and gridlock that has defined Washington in recent years.

“We are realistic. We know the difference between a good year and a bad year, and this is not a good year,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), the Republican Conference chairman. “We have to say what we’re for. We need to reintroduce ourselves to voters and point out the differences between each of us and our opponent, but we know enough not to spend time running against Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, who no one in Tennessee ever heard of.”

“We’ve seen what does not work — hyperpartisanship, the blame game, the finger-pointing,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the Conference vice chairman. “We’re trying to focus on what will work. We’re trying to focus on good old-fashioned debates. And it’s a good thing because we think we are winning those arguments.

“Part of that is because we’ve learned by listening to people,” Cornyn added. “They want solutions.”

Alexander and Cornyn are two of three GOP Senate leaders in cycle this year — a factor many Republicans say has led to their Conference’s evolving tactics this year. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also is running for re-election in 2008 and has sought to redirect the tone amid a newfound appreciation for voters’ disillusionment with Congress.

All three of those leaders are favored to win re-election, but they have been padding their campaign accounts with millions just in case. Senate Republicans acknowledge that no incumbent is truly safe in the wake of the 2006 elections that cost them six seats and the majority.

“They’ve seen the conditions on the ground because they are dealing with it,” a senior GOP Senate aide said of the leadership. “It’s actually good for our vulnerables who are running to have three people in our leadership who are also running. The leadership is very attuned to what’s going on. They are all able to have a realistic discussion about voter mood, and this is how they are addressing it.”

Senate Republicans aren’t taking the gloves off altogether. But they say they are picking their battles more carefully these days, and when they do take their shots, are doing so with a gentler touch. With rare exception, the Conference has also abandoned many of its traditional election-year social issue fights in exchange for promoting a slate of domestic priorities.

Even in the case of the Republicans’ ongoing fight over the slow pace of Senate approval of President Bush’s picks for the federal bench, Senators are treading more lightly these days. Party leaders continue to use the floor to press their case for judicial confirmations, but their rhetoric is short on action and long on muted threats.

That may be one area where leaders are getting blowback for their softer tone, with some Republican Senators acknowledging that conservatives and some of the party’s rank and file are unhappy with how the judicial nominations issue has been handled. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) conceded Thursday that at town hall meetings and other events with conservatives, voters are making complaints “just like two years ago.” Yet Grassley defended the leadership’s approach of using speeches and public events to address those conservatives’ concerns.

Senate Republicans are opting against following a strategy that consists only of attacking Democratic ideas, instead choosing to lodge their disagreement with the majority party while also floating competing agendas on issues such as health care, the housing crisis and energy reform. And they’ve recently teamed up with Democrats to pass major pieces of legislation, including supporting a far-reaching housing package and a war funding measure replete with domestic spending add-ons for veterans benefits and unemployment insurance.

Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), one of the most imperiled incumbents this year, said Senate Republicans’ new approach to 2008 doesn’t mean abandoning their principles or long-held views, but it does mean focusing on ideas that can draw widespread support. He said that is critical for a party trying to get its footing in a chamber that requires 60 voters to pass legislation. For instance, Senate Republicans are now putting together a proposal to combat global warming — a concept the party all but shunned a year ago.

“In a year that seems like a death knell for incumbents, you don’t help yourself by bringing down the institution,” Coleman said. “My colleagues know we are going to be measured by what we do.”

Senate Republicans seem to be fairly unified in that mindset. Vulnerables and conservatives alike have deferred to the leaders’ tactics of late, painting a stark contrast to House Republicans who have been embroiled in internecine finger-pointing.

Still reeling from a devastating trifecta of special election losses, House GOPers spent the closing weeks of the legislative session struggling to right themselves. Frustration with what they called heavy-handed tactics by House Democratic leadership — and with their own lot, as GOP aides acknowledged — prompted a series of blowups: using dilatory tactics to slow floor action; voting “present” on war funding to sink that portion of the supplemental spending package; and trying to force an ethics committee investigation of Democratic leaders’ role in the clerical snafu that tripped up the farm bill.

House GOPers are likely to remain on aggressive footing. House Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.) signaled that even as Republicans continue rolling out their long-awaited policy agenda in the coming weeks, they will keep drawing sharp contrasts with Democrats.

“It’s important for us to demonstrate what we’re for, but it’s also important to educate the American people on the differences between the parties’ agendas and all the missed opportunities in the 110th Congress to deliver on action items that would have had a positive impact,” he said.

House Republican leadership aides pointed to institutional differences between the chambers that preserve sharper partisan edges on their side of the Capitol. Namely, they said, strict majority rule sidelines the minority, and gerrymandered districts mean both sides are serving more ideologically pure constituencies than their statewide Senate counterparts.

But they also said a recent pileup of bad news is aggravating tensions across the aisle. “We’re having our ‘we’re mad as hell, and we aren’t going to take it any more’ moment,” one GOP leadership aide said. “And we are going to channel that outrage both against the tyranny and incompetence of the majority, while also defining who we are and what we stand for as a Conference.”

Regardless of how House Republicans forge ahead, Sen. John Ensign (Nev.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said GOP Senators know that the November elections will be dictated by “which party and which candidates get things done.” If Republicans simply try to wage wars in Congress, they will do little to prove a case for their party over the next six months, he argued.

“It’s all about who can offer results,” said Ensign, who has the overwhelming task of protecting 23 GOP-held Senate seats this year.

Cornyn said Senate Republicans got that wake-up call earlier this month when House Republicans lost their third straight special election in Mississippi, which he said was run by “Washington consultants who want to nationalize the election.”

“We have a better sense of what works and that’s why our approach has been modified,” he said.

John Stanton contributed to this report.

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