Show civility or claws? GOP at a crossroads in Congress

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 9, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans have an identity crisis: Should they position themselves as bulldogs-in-waiting or as gentle opponents willing to offer some support to a popular Democratic president-elect?

In these first days of the 111th Congress, they're being kind and conciliatory, helping to create a gentle tone on Capitol Hill that's been absent for at least 20 years.

Going along and offering mild opposition fits the country's mood, said Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla., and ultimately will help Republicans.

"Everybody still hates Congress as much today as they did the day before," he said. "Only if we all work together can we change the mood."

Civility could have a price, however. Smiling even though your heart is aching arguably hurt Republicans back in the 1980s and sparked the ascension of Newt Gingrich and other young conservative mavericks.

Their effort to steer the party in a more conservative direction helped the GOP win control of Congress in 1994 for the first time in 40 years and then the presidency six years later.

In 2009, the GOP is at a similar crossroads. Two months ago, the party took its worst electoral drubbing since 1992, and Democrats begin this year with control of the legislative and executive branches for the first time since then.

The Republican leader in the House of Representatives, Ohio's John Boehner, who's often criticized by conservatives for being too accommodating to opponents, tried to set the tone for his party.

"During the 111th Congress," he said in a floor speech, "Republicans will strive not to be the party of opposition, but the party of better solutions."

At the same time, he and others signaled that they're ready to claw their way back. Within hours, the House voted on a rules package that included ending six-year term limits for committee chairmen.

Republicans had imposed the limits when they took control in 1995 to prevent single lawmakers from establishing the kind of dictatorial authority that gave them strong power over legislation, sometimes for decades.

GOP members howled about the change. The party's congressional campaign committee sent out 54 versions of a press release with the same complaint: "(Fill in the member's name) First Votes Hit Hypocrisy High Note," and suggested the member "was happy to help (House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi cement her grip on power . . . "

There's no easy answer as to how to behave, said former House Republican Leader Robert Michel, R-Ill.

"You don't want to be opposed to everything," said Michel, who led the House Republicans from 1981 to 1995. "It takes a little finessing."

One hope is that Democrats will self-destruct, as they did in Clinton's first two years. They virtually shut out Republicans from policymaking, and not one Republican voted for Clinton's signature $500 billion deficit-reduction plan in 1993.

When Clinton's health care effort collapsed, Republicans were quick to claim that the breakdown characterized the chaos of the Clinton White House.

By 1994, Gingrich's troops drew up a "Contract with America," pledging quick action on 10 key issues, and wound up gaining 54 House and 10 Senate seats.

"It wasn't any one thing that caused that bloodletting," recalled Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., "and we need to make sure we don't do that kind of thing again."

Democrats, he said, have to understand the need to appeal to a broad constituency, and Obama has made it clear that he'll consult with Republicans.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was particularly pleased when the president-elect said he'd back a $300 billion tax cut.

"It's clear to me from listening to the president, the new president, that he wants to include Republican ideas," McConnell said, "and among them, that I've laid out in the last few days, are reducing the middle-class tax rate."

McConnell, though, carefully carved out a separate position, saying that he wanted to reduce temporarily the tax rate of 25 percent to 15 percent for taxpayers filing jointly who earn $67,900 to $137,050.

He also staked out another position dear to Republican interests: trying to slow spending growth. Instead of aid to the states, widely discussed as a key part of any stimulus, he'd lend states the money they want. States would repay the funds at a 5 percent interest rate for the first five years and at 9 percent thereafter.

Most Republicans see such positions as proper at the moment. The party is in some turmoil trying to choose its new chairman — there are six candidates and no clear favorite — while Obama is drawing strong support across the board.

Perhaps as important, Obama is trying hard to create a gentler tone. He came to Capitol Hill and met with Republican leaders, but he's moved quickly to defuse any major controversies.

Good politicians know that much of their success is the result of timing, and the times call for calm. That could change, and Republicans maintain that they'll be ready if Obama or Congress stumbles.

If the Senate, for instance, reverts to its sharply partisan ways of the recent past, said Heritage Foundation analyst Michael Franc, "That will unify Republicans like nothing else can."

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