January 17, 2013

Republicans discuss repairing image

House GOP members at a retreat examine their identity and gear up for a fight over spending.

By ROSALIND S. HELDERMAN and ED O'KEEFE The Washington Post

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. - House Republicans are cloistered at a tony golf resort here for three days hoping to resurrect their battered political brand, as they prepare for what could be another damaging confrontation with President Obama over federal spending.

John Boehner
click image to enlarge

Speaker John Boehner, with other Republicans on Capitol Hill earlier this month, has told party members at a retreat that the House won’t act on gun control until the Senate does.

The Associated Press

MAJORITY IN POLL EXPECT ECONOMIC CRISIS IF CONGRESS FAILS TO EXTEND DEBT CEILING

Most Americans think jarring economic problems will erupt if lawmakers fail to increase the government's borrowing limit. Yet they're torn over how or even whether to raise it, leaning toward Republican demands that any boost be accompanied by spending cuts.

According to an Associated Press-GfK poll, 53 percent say that if the debt limit is not extended and the U.S. defaults, the country will face a major economic crisis. An additional 27 percent say such a crisis would be somewhat likely, while just 17 percent largely dismiss the prospects of such damage.

The poll's findings echo many economists' warnings that failure to raise the debt ceiling and the resulting, unprecedented federal default would risk wounding the world economy because many interest rates are pegged to the trustworthiness of the U.S. to pay its debts. President Obama and many Republicans agree with that, though some GOP lawmakers eager to force Obama to accept spending cuts have downplayed a default's impact.

When asked which political path to follow, 39 percent of poll respondents support the insistence by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that deep spending cuts be attached to any measure increasing the debt ceiling. That's more than the 30 percent who back Obama's demand that borrowing authority be raised quickly and not entwined with a bitter fight over trimming the budget.

An additional 21 percent oppose boosting the debt ceiling at all.

The poll involved landline and cellphone interviews with 1,004 randomly chosen adults and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

-- The Associated Press

At their annual retreat, House members said there is general fretting about the damage done to the party's image by the strident tone adopted by some candidates and officials.

"It's a time for self-reflection," said one member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share details of the private discussions. "Our identity with the American people has really, really suffered, and this is a conversation about collectively restoring a values-driven identity."

Although there was some urgency for a change, the consensus was that the change was about how to communicate, not about rethinking core policy positions.

"This is about tone. It's about messaging and it's about showing people what we're for instead of what we're against," said Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell, a Republican, describing his message to House GOP members at a lunch session Thursday.

"Rape is a four-letter word -- don't say it," the group was advised by a Republican pollster in another session, said one person familiar with the discussion. That was a reference to controversial remarks by candidates about rape and abortion that were partly to blame for the GOP losing two Senate seats -- in Indiana and Missouri -- in November.

Sessions this week included advice on turning around troubled organizations from the chief executive of Domino's Pizza and a motivational address from the first blind man to summit Mount Everest. But much of the retreat was devoted to what amounted to open-mic sessions to let members strategize for the upcoming fiscal fight.

The nation has reached its $16.4 trillion credit limit and without congressional action, the Treasury Department has said the government will be unable to meet its spending obligations sometime in February or early March. Many Republicans want to use the moment to extract deep spending cuts from Obama, including in entitlement programs.

The president says that without increased borrowing authority, the nation will default on its debt obligations and send the world's economy into a tailspin.

One possible course, aides said, would involve raising the debt ceiling for just a few months in exchange for several hundred billion dollars in budget cuts, probably culled from a bipartisan list developed in 2011 in talks led by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Vice President Joe Biden.

A longer-term debt-limit increase would be available thereafter, but only if the Republican-led House and the Democratic-led Senate approved a framework to set tax and spending policies for the next decade.

That would avoid a federal default and move the negotiation to areas in which the president seems more amenable and have less impact on the broader economy: the automatic spending cuts to military and domestic programs set to hit in early March and the expiration on March 27 of a funding bill to keep the government running.

"If we're willing to do it, we want something in return," said Rep. John Fleming, R-La., one of the chamber's most fiscally conservative members. "Our constituents are going to demand that. Even if it's short-term, what are we getting for that?"

House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said the goal is to use this moment to reduce deficits, while recognizing that Republicans are limited by the fact that they do not control the Senate or the White House.

"We think the worst thing for the economy is to move past these events that are occurring with no progress made on the debt and the deficit," Ryan said, offering his most expansive exchange with reporters since his unsuccessful vice presidential bid. Aides said Ryan is reassuming his role as the GOP's front man on budget issues.

The House Republicans' retreat follows a rocky period for them politically. Besides Obama's defeat of Mitt Romney in November, Democrats enlarged their Senate majority and picked up eight House seats.

Lawmakers and staff members attending the retreat described the discussions as passionate and intense, but not angry.

"I think this is a time where now you can catch your breath a little," said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., noting that the gathering comes just two months after Election Day and after weeks of wrangling over the "fiscal cliff."

The retreat will continue into Friday. One senior aide said that as of Thursday, the conversation was dominated by the fiscal debate. Members only briefly discussed gun control, a topic that Obama indicated this week will be a core plank of his second-term agenda. On that issue, House Speaker John Boehner told members privately what he has been saying publicly: The House will not act until it sees what the Senate does.

Republicans have spent more time broadly discussing a need to address the nation's immigration laws and they will hold a session Friday on "successful communications with minorities and women."

Walden, responsible for getting more Republicans elected to the House as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said he hopes the GOP will be more sensitive to how it appeals to Hispanics before future elections.

"We may not understand how what we say is interpreted by others and we have to be sensitive and understand the effect of our language," he said.

 

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