House Republican leadership: a preview
If you want to know about the House GOP game plan for the lame duck session or 2011, you can't do better than sitting down with Rep. Paul Ryan, the wonkish congressman from Wisconsin whose proposal for entitlement reform and his role as the next House budget committee chairman put him in the driver's seat for the Republicans' key issues. I caught up with him in his office -- which is filled this week with stacks of orange packing crates for the pending move to the Longworth building's second floor.
A member of the Simpson-Bowles fiscal commission, Ryan is enthusiastic about the final report scheduled to be released today. He plainly sees it as a major breakthrough: a center-right consensus on real fiscal reform. He acknowledges that the chairmen's plan released last month struck many conservatives as more responsible and detailed that they expected. With a preponderance of Democrats on the committee, conservatives feared that at best it would produce pablum, at worst a proposal for a huge tax hike. That didn't happen, Ryan says, largely because of the Democratic co-chairman, Erskine Bowles, whom he terms "a serious person." Ryan explains: "He is a true centrist Democrat. He just wanted to advance the debate." He adds admiringly that Bowles didn't have to go back to "check" with Democrats. As for the Dems' nearly unanimous negative reaction, Ryan says bluntly that he wasn't surprised a bit. (He suggests that conservatives will be even more pleased with the final version, which he indicates will do more to address Obama's health-care plan, an omission in the previewed report that alarmed conservatives.)
Ryan says that he expects the lame duck session will avoid committing to spending cuts and instead coast through on the continuing resolution, which is set to run out this Friday, but which can be easily extended with a simple date change by the House majority. ( A number of key Republican aides agree with this, pointing out there's been no preview and no legislative "vehicle" put forth to suggest anything but a new "CR.") Ryan says that it's up to the Republicans to show their "response to Obamaism." The budget, he says, should " be the defining document" for Republicans to explain how they want to "preempt a debt crisis." He warns, "We aren't at the point of European austerity measures," but we will be, he predicts, if we continue down our current path.
As for ObamaCare, Ryans says "there will be a big vote" on repeal in the first quarter of 2011. But after trying that -- likely to no avail in the Senate, unless fear grips many of the nearly two dozen Democrats who will be up for reelection in 2012 -- the House leaders intend to hold votes, again and again, on discrete health-care issues: the individual mandate, the tax paperwork requirements imposed on business, and defunding, among others. By 2012, the voting records of every House member will be crystal clear. And as far as the Republicans are concerned, the more votes the better. They read the polls, see that ObamaCare remains unpopular, and are banking on it becoming even more so with each new revelation.
Ryan, like key staffers whom I've spoken with since the election, says he is impressed with the new crop of GOP congressmen. Yes, there are Tea Party upstarts, but not in nearly the same numbers as on the Senate side. In general, the new Republican House members are those scouted and drafted by the leadership. Ryan calls them "very accomplished people," including "many conservative state legislators and talented people from the private sector." He says these aren't lifetime politicians, but rather "cause types" dedicated to addressing the country's economic woes.
As a Republican source told me, the new members are "lawyers, doctors, state legislators -- these are solid Republicans." Translation: the perceived conflict between Tea Partyers and House veterans is overblown. And when called on to be be team players, Republican operatives are eager to point out, even Tea Party favorites like Michele Bachmann avoid fights (as she did in the contest for the House conference chair). There is remarkable unity on priorities: The focus is on jobs and fiscal issues. Immigration? It's not anywhere near the top of the list (except for immigration exclusionists, such as Rep. Steve King).
Ryan also downplays any conflict between foreign policy hawks and budget cutters. He says that the Pentagon shouldn't be exempt from scrutiny and praises the debt commission for identifying waste "we should go after." But he cautions that defense is a "primary function" of government and, given the multiple wars and hot spots, we need to focus on cutting waste and improving the budget process. There is no appetite, other Capitol Hill Republicans agree, for slashing defense spending given our international challenges.
Ryan is realistic about the role the House can play. He estimates that it has a year or so to get things done, but that may be "optimistic." Then, what he dubs the "silly season" (presidential and other campaigning) kicks in.
In conversations with Ryan and other key Republicans on the Hill, one adjective that comes to mind is "sober." House leaders and aides certainly don't overestimate their ability to redirect Obama's foreign policy, for example. Oversight will be "serious" one advisor tells me, but they have no illusions that foreign policy can be run from the House.
What about the prospect of presidential candidates taking pot shots at them to bolster their own outsider status? The House leaders are aware of the danger, but they'll aim to rack up votes so that the 2012 candidates "run toward the House rather than say these people are idiots, those people are idiots, so elect me!" says a plugged-in Republican.
Now, if it is true in war that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, then it is equally accurate to say that no legislative game plan survives contact with the opposition -- or the real world. But House Republican leaders have one goal, and that's to demonstrate what a conservative alternative to Obamaism looks like. If they can do that and avoid past mistakes -- their own and by the Pelosi Democrats they are replacing -- it will be quite an achievement.
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