GOP Mutes Rhetoric for Now

Posted January 13, 2009 at 6:40pm

Republican leaders are consciously muting their rhetoric against President-elect Barack Obama for now for fear of a public backlash as he enters the White House with sky-high approval ratings.

Even House Republicans, who have become significantly more conservative this year in makeup and in their leadership ranks, have largely held their fire at the behest of Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), who has personally talked warmly about Obama and privately urged other Members to temper their rhetoric.

In the Senate, Republicans are temporarily opting against all-out partisan warfare as they wait to see how Democratic leaders will run the chamber in the weeks and months ahead.

In the House, Boehner and other leaders have talked behind the scenes, including at last weekend’s leadership retreat, about making a distinction between Obama and Congressional Democrats — who are much less popular than Obama and are already tightening the rights of the minority in contrast to Obama’s message of bipartisanship.

The strategy already appears to be paying some dividends in that Obama has moved in the GOP’s direction on some tax cuts in the stimulus package and has continued a serious effort to reach out to Republicans. Obama also helped get commitments from Democratic leaders, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), for an open process on the stimulus package with Republican opportunities for input.

“Republicans’ best friend right now is Obama because Pelosi ends up getting triangulated,” said Ron Bonjean, chief executive officer of the Bonjean Co. and one-time spokesman for former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). “Pelosi right now is promoting martial law and taking away minority rights while Obama is casting himself as bipartisan.”

Obama also accepted an invitation from House GOP leaders to address their conference, likely within three weeks after his inauguration.

That doesn’t mean the honeymoon will last forever, or that the GOP won’t quickly point out their differences with Obama, especially when he fleshes out his agenda later this year.

Indeed, Boehner, Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) and other Republicans have been publicly wary of Obama’s spending plans, charging that the country can’t spend its way to prosperity.

But the criticisms have lacked a sharp sting, for now.

“If Republicans attack too early and don’t give him a chance to govern, we come off as sore losers and lose any credibility that we’re rebuilding,” Bonjean said.

Rob Collins, Cantor’s chief of staff, said “it would be simply irrelevant if we were destructive at this point,” noting that Obama hasn’t come out with many specifics to react against and has instead made overtures to Republicans.

“If Obama’s willing to give us a couple hundred billions of dollars in tax cuts, then we’ll talk,” Collins said, adding that Obama has to deal with the liberal wing of his party. “He’ll have more problems with his liberal left than with conservatives in the first six months.”

Republicans said there will be plenty of time later in Obama’s term to attack Democrats for the inevitable excesses that come with one-party rule.

Republican leaders also are buying into the idea that they need to focus on providing alternatives and solutions to appeal to the American people, rather than on attacks, with last year’s debate over oil drilling as one model for success.

To that end, Boehner tasked Cantor to head a working group on the economy that will meet Thursday, with other similar efforts to come.

“We’ve got to start talking to people about ideas and solutions and how to get things done, and then we can talk about the politics and who deserves to run the place,” Collins said.

GOP consultant David Winston, who advises House Republicans, said last year’s successful energy protest could prove a model for the new Republicans because it was focused on solutions and a clear choice rather than partisan attacks.

“Just simply being the ‘party of no’ is not the way to prove you can govern,” said Winston, who is also a Roll Call contributing writer. Republican leaders “believe if you are going to prove you are ready to govern, you better have something better as an approach. …

“It’s not about defining your opponent per se, it’s about defining what the choice is,” Winston said. “That will produce a different tone as a result.”

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans also appear to be cooling their heels as they wait for Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) next moves on the floor.

With a bare minimum of Senators — 41 — giving them the ability to filibuster, Republicans said they realize they cannot operate as they did in the 110th Congress, where they blocked many otherwise bipartisan bills because Reid would not allow GOP Senators to offer amendments.

“We’re outnumbered, and we’ve got limited resources. We’ve got to pick our battles,” one senior Senate GOP aide said.

That dynamic was on vivid display Sunday, when Reid forced a rare weekend vote on a package of lands bills that had been held up for years by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). Coburn had attempted to get Reid to agree to a finite list of amendments, but Reid used procedural moves to block out any GOP proposals from being considered.

Last year, that tactic spelled instant death for the measure as it failed to garner enough votes to bring it up. But this time, nine Republicans joined all Democrats in rolling over Coburn’s objections.

“I don’t think that this was one our leaders wanted to pick a fight on, but I think there will be times that we will and we’re going to have to or this is going to become the norm rather than the exception,” said GOP Conference Vice Chairman John Thune (S.D.), who was the highest- ranking Republican leader to attend the vote.

One Republican Senator acknowledged that the absence of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and other high-ranking GOP Senators on Sunday was a clear signal that Republicans were allowed to vote however they liked on the lands package — a stark departure from the past two years.

And Republican Senators said they were not concerned that Reid appeared to be starting the 111th Congress like the 110th ended, despite Reid’s repeated promises to run the Senate floor in a more bipartisan manner.

“I could act like this was some big deal, but it’s been going on now for about four years,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said of the long-standing feud between Reid and Coburn over the lands bill. “I do think that you will find unity on issues regarding protecting minority rights. I think you will definitely see that this year, but this one again, has a long history.”

A former GOP leadership aide said: “What we’re going to see right now is a period of every man for himself.”

The former aide explained that given their reduced numbers and Reid’s apparent willingness to use his majority to push through legislation, lawmakers will, at least in the short term, be more likely to abandon their traditional loyalty to the party if Democrats give them enough incentives.

In the case of the public lands package, Reid was sure to stock it with bills that had at least one Republican as a primary sponsor and that were a high priority in their home states.

A current GOP leadership aide acknowledged Democrats should generally be able to find a way to avoid a filibuster. “Anybody with a bill can find a way to get two votes,” the aide said.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) indicated that he is waiting for Reid to show he is serious about allowing more GOP amendments on the floor this time around.

“This business of the Majority Leader using his authority to prevent amendments, to prevent debate, we hope we don’t see this” during the 111th Congress, Alexander said.

John Stanton contributed to this report.