Republicans still looking for direction

Three months into the new Congress, Republicans are struggling to reinvent themselves on the fly as they adjust to life without a president of their own party or a majority in the House and Senate.

Opposition to President Barack Obama’s policies is relatively easy to achieve. But developing alternatives that can appeal outside the party’s conservative core seems more difficult.

On taxes and other issues, polling suggests Republican lawmakers are facing a far different electorate than the one that trusted them with control of Congress for more than a decade and twice elected George W. Bush president.

"It seems like a lot of Republicans are speaking only to their (political) base," says John Feehery, who was a top aide to the last GOP speaker of the House, former Rep. Dennis Hastert of Illinois. "And their base is very interesting and very energized, but also only makes up 25 percent of the country."

Health care, energy and education will all provide Republicans fresh chances to suggest alternatives to Democratic policies in the coming months.

But the recent budget debate illustrated their problem, particularly in the House.

In all, 38 of 175 members of the House GOP rank and file opposed a conservative, leadership-backed budget alternative that envisioned sweeping changes to Medicare beginning in 2011, as well as cancellation of billions of dollars in highway construction funds the economic stimulus bill.

On Medicare, the House GOP alternative proposed phasing out the traditional fee-for-service option in place since the program’s inception. Instead, beginning in 2021, anyone turning 65 would quality for a government subsidy to purchase coverage from an insurance company.

Supporters said the system would be equivalent to the one that federal employees and members of Congress use, and noted that Medicare needs dramatic changes to remain solvent.

Democrats did little to exploit the issue. Yet the GOP budget drew opposition from half of the 14 Republicans from Florida, a state with millions of Medicare beneficiaries. The party’s overall defection rate was nearly triple the one suffered by Democrats on the White House-backed budget.

At that, Republicans seemed to flinch on one key point, omitting their standard call for voluntary personal Social Security accounts coupled with a reduction in benefits promised to many future retirees. That seemed a bow to political reality after the decline in the stock market.

The drive to produce a budget alternative derived from Republican leader John Boehner’s declaration the day the new Congress convened. "Republicans will strive not to be the party of opposition, but the party of better solutions," he said Jan. 6.

Across the Capitol, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky decided against a complete budget alternative, preferring not to give the Obama administration and its allies a target.

"The administration’s budget simply taxes too much, spends too much and borrows too much at a moment when we can least afford it," he said, a charge repeatedly early and often.

McConnell ran into problems with one earlier proposal. He recommended over the winter that states be required to pay the federal government back the billions they received in the economic stimulus bill.

The idea drew little evident support — including among governors within his own party — and never came to a vote.

Looking ahead, one key health care decisions will revolve around the possibility of a government option to compete with private insurance companies.

Republican senators recently wrote Obama that the idea would "inevitably doom true competition." But Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has said flatly a government option will be in the bill that moves through the House, and Obama aides have spoken favorably of it.

Republicans already are attacking Obama’s call for a cap-and-trade plan to raise hundreds of billions through the sale of pollution permits. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., cited private estimates that the average household will be hit with new costs of between $1,600 and $4,500 per household. "The point is, a lot of taxes," he said.

It is an article of faith within both parties that the 2010 elections will be shaped largely by the fate of the economy, and Republicans almost certainly would benefit if a recovery fails to take shape.

Yet a CBS survey found only 31 percent of those polled reporting a favorable view of Republicans, a decline from 36 percent the month before last fall’s elections. Polls also shows voters identify themselves as Democrats in larger numbers than as Republicans, although a recent National Public Radio survey showed a tie in a hypothetical ballot test between unnamed rival candidates.

There also appears to be a perceptible change in attitude about taxes, long an issue that helped Republicans.

In a recent Gallup survey, 48 percent said their federal income tax burden was too high, and 46 percent said it was about right.

Contrast that with April 1996, when the Newt Gingrich-led Republicans were in power in the House, and 64 percent said their income tax burden was too high. Or 2001, after Bush took office calling for tax cuts. Then, 65 percent expressed dissatisfaction with their own bill to the Internal Revenue Service.

On that, at least, Republicans are victims of their own success. Elected on a promise of tax cuts, they delivered, repeatedly.

Now, it seems, they must look elsewhere for political renewal.

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David Espo is AP’s chief congressional correspondent.

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