House GOP, its numbers in decline, preparing for combat

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 6, 2008 

WASHINGTON — Rep. Roy Blunt, the House of Representatives' second-ranking Republican, stepped down from his leadership post Thursday as the House GOP moved quickly to reposition itself as more conservative, unified and eager to fight Democrats in the Obama era.

The Missouri congressman's resignation came a day after Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla., the House's third-ranking Republican, quit his leadership job. Likely to replace them are two combative favorites of die-hard conservatives: Virginia's Rep. Eric Cantor, expected to replace Blunt, and Indiana's Rep. Mike Pence, who'd take Putnam's place.

Ohio Rep. John Boehner is expected to remain as the House minority leader, in charge of a Republican caucus that could lose as many as 26 seats — eight races remain undecided — in the 111th Congress.

House minorities usually have two roles. Their legislative task is difficult, because House rules make it difficult for them to offer alternatives without the majority's cooperation. The other is political, to provide a unified, consistent message in opposition to the majority.

Making that message clear should be the House Republicans' major goal next year, said Michael Tanner, senior fellow at Washington's Cato Institute, a libertarian research center.

"The leadership changes won't mean a lot in getting legislation passed," he said, "but if they have a single, coherent message it could hurt Obama's efforts to build consensus."

New presidents have found that their legislative paths — not to mention their approval ratings — are easier when they have even token bipartisan support.

President Bush enjoyed Democratic cooperation in crafting his 2001 No Child Left Behind education package, and President Reagan got vital support from Democrats in 1981 when he sought a 25 percent three-year tax cut.

But President Clinton suffered in 1993, his first year, when his deficit-reduction package failed to win any Republican backing, a key point that the Republican Party stressed in 1994 as it branded Clinton as eager to raise taxes. Republicans won control of both houses of Congress that year for the first time in 40 years.

This time, Republicans appear ready to rally around their own economic ideas, notably that taxes shouldn't be increased and spending should be reduced dramatically.

Democrats will be under strong pressure to pass Obama's tax plan. It would provide breaks for lower- and middle-income taxpayers while allowing 2001 and 2003 cuts to expire on Jan. 1, 2011, for individuals who earn more than $200,000 a year and families that make more than $250,000.

However, said Michael Franc, the vice president of government relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation research center, "A lot of Democrats will want to walk away from the idea of tax increases. They're going to find the (deficit) numbers just don't work out."

Republicans will be egging them on, he said.

The departures of Blunt and Putnam are a strong signal that economic conservatives are ascending. Boehner is seen as more of a consensus-builder but has long been considered an economic conservative

Cantor, 45, is known for his fundraising skills and his defense of former Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas when DeLay faced ethics problems in 2005. Last summer, Cantor was mentioned as a possible running mate for John McCain, and he led the effort to stop some Republican leaders from building a consensus on the financial-rescue package.

Pence, 49, former chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, has promoted balanced budgets and has been a vocal advocate for making the Bush tax cuts permanent.

Blunt said Thursday that his departure wasn't sudden.

"In January 2007 I wrote myself a letter and mailed it to my office," he said. The letter explained how he'd spend the next two years "holding the Democrats accountable and defining the differences between our parties.

"I also wrote that were we not successful in recapturing the majority in 2008," he said, he'd leave his leadership post.

He said the party's losses Tuesday were due largely to "circumstances beyond our control," not a rejection of the conservative agenda.

"I firmly believe that if we successfully define the Democrat agenda for what it is and present a compelling alternative," Blunt said, "we will be the majority in two short years."

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