Bracing for President Barack Obama’s aggressive legislative agenda, Senate Republican leaders recently began tasking key members of their Conference with drafting policy alternatives and message points to try to counter the popular chief executive’s plans.
At the heart of the Senate Republicans’ strategy is an acknowledgement that Obama has a strong hand to play in the 111th Congress and that they must choose their fights wisely.
Unlike the House, where minority lawmakers have very limited power, Senate Republicans believe they have opportunities — if selective — to influence debate and advance their initiatives. Republicans say their strategy will be targeted, praising some of Obama’s moves such as his recently announced plans for Afghanistan while attacking others such as the size of his federal budget blueprint.
Republicans also will look for areas where they can, as part of their critique, provide alternatives to Democratic agenda items.
“We don’t have anyone on our side who can give a speech like Obama,— one senior GOP leadership aide said, explaining that in order for Senate Republicans to steer policy debates, they will need to find ways to make moderate Democrats uneasy with the president’s plans while also offering competing ideas.
“The only way that you can make them feel uncomfortable about it is if you show them the policy implications … and alternatives,— the aide said. “You have your talking points, but beyond that you have a depth of knowledge that can improve the product if given the opportunity.—
According to Republicans, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) have tasked several Members with leading issue-based task forces and other working groups. These groups are not only charged with developing policy alternatives or drafting legislation, but also with coming up with effective talking points on issues ranging from health care and Social Security to energy and housing.
For instance, the newly formed health care task force is being run by Health, Education, Labor and Pensions ranking member Mike Enzi (Wyo.), Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Budget ranking member Judd Gregg (N.H.) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), all of whom have key expertise on the issue. While the panel will likely develop GOP policy alternatives, its primary goal is to educate Republicans on the issues likely to define the debate.
The task force is designed “not to produce legislation but to raise everybody’s education levels so that when we start talking about it … [we] have five, 10 or more Senators that are well-versed— on the topic, one GOP leadership aide said.
Gregg also will lead the Senate Republicans’ efforts on Social Security reform, aides said, while Grassley and Sens. Johnny Isakson (Ga.) and Bob Corker (Tenn.) —both of whom have played key roles in the recent economic stimulus fights — will figure prominently in the formulating of the Conference’s strategy on other economic matters.
Energy and Natural Resources ranking member Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) also is expected to play a prominent role in upcoming debates, particularly on energy issues, as is Chief Deputy Minority Whip Richard Burr (N.C.).
Ultimately, GOP leaders hope the new policy teams will make it possible for the Conference to avoid purely emotional, partisan debates and present concrete arguments against specific proposals. Republicans want to “take the argument out of the emotional appeal and put it into practical policy proposals,— the senior leadership aide said.
Republicans point out that while they were unsuccessful in making major changes to the recently passed economic stimulus package, their criticism of the original House bill’s infrastructure funding and tax-cut provisions helped push moderate lawmakers in the Senate into brokering a deal that significantly altered the final bill. And while only a handful of Republicans voted for the measure, lawmakers hope to parrot the strategy for future legislative fights.
Similarly, while Obama and Senate Democrats decided to deal with housing issues in a separate bill, aides on both sides of the aisle said major aspects of a separate GOP plan, developed by Policy Committee Chairman John Ensign (Nev.) and Isakson, could ultimately make it into the final product.
On the communications front, Alexander has taken the lead in developing not only the GOP’s message but in fielding Senators on the floor during morning business to promote their ideas. In addition to utilizing the entire leadership team, the various committee ranking members and lawmakers with expertise on certain issues will be tasked with giving floor speeches laying out the GOP’s positions.
On energy issues, Murkowski, Burr and others will roll out the GOP message, while Judiciary ranking member Arlen Specter (Pa.) will continue to take the lead on judicial nominations. Grassley and Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) will likely be leaders on the economy and health care messaging, while Isakson and Corker are expected to be “popping up throughout the economic debate,— one aide said.