WASHINGTON — Republicans have spent the first hundred days of the 111th Congress mostly down and shut out.
While there's a realistic hope that they'll be more involved in some upcoming policy decisions, the GOP still has a long way to go before the public sees it as constructive and cohesive rather than obstructionist and unruly.
"There are seasons in politics, and right now it's winter for the Republicans," said Jack Pitney, a congressional expert at Claremont McKenna College in California.
Polls indicate that the Republicans' approval ratings remain dismal: A March 27-29 Gallup poll found the congressional GOP approval rating at 30 percent, down 6 percentage points from a month earlier.
"The real issue is that the party is not being seen as constructive. They're not seen as voicing solutions to problems," said Andrew Kohut, the president of the Pew Research Center. "People don't feel they understand what Republicans stand for — not even members of the party."
A Pew poll taken March 31-April 6 found that only 41 percent of Republicans thought the party had clearly explained its opposition to Democratic initiatives, while 42 percent said it hadn't explained things clearly enough.
Some GOP loyalists see hope. Kellyanne Conway, the president of the polling company in Washington, found in her recent surveys that far more people identified themselves as conservatives than as Republicans.
At the moment, she said, too many people see the GOP as having drifted from core conservative principles, notably on fiscal issues. Others point to a lack of dynamic leadership as the key problem.
Whatever the reason, analysts and members of Congress see the GOP message as too often muddled, and they point to the Republicans' recent problems fashioning their version of a fiscal 2010 budget as Exhibit A.
In these first weeks of a new White House administration and Congress, budget plans take on unusual importance. They're the outlines for the party's agenda, which is why President Barack Obama and Democratic congressional leaders were so eager to win approval of their $3.6 trillion plan earlier this month.
Republicans in the House of Representatives tried to counter the proposal, but stumbled. On March 26, they released an 18-page "Republican Road to Recovery" with lots of complaints about Democratic ideas but few GOP plans backed by data.
It was a public-relations mess, and a week later, the data were made available. Republicans in the House of Representatives wound up offering two competing budgets. One from conservatives was opposed by 65 GOP House members. The other, which had the blessing of the party's House leadership, drew 38 Republican "no" votes. The House has 178 Republicans.
House GOP leader John Boehner of Ohio saw bright spots, though. No Republicans voted for the Democratic blueprint, and the guiding philosophies behind the GOP budgets were the same — lower taxes, less government spending and plans to slow the growth of entitlements such as Medicare.
Some GOP strategists also hailed the budget developments. "The party has found its voice. It's found its footing," said Brent Littlefield, a Washington-based political consultant.
Others were less certain.
"The party is doing better than most of us thought," said Keith Appell, a Virginia-based conservative strategist. "But there's still a ways to go in developing cohesion and a unified purpose."
When Congress returns on April 20, poised to consider major changes in health care, energy and education policy, Republicans in Congress have three hurdles to overcome. They include moving beyond recent history, rallying around their leaders and showing unity.
The immediate past is the party's biggest problem. "There's been considerable damage to the Republican brand," said Pitney, a professor of politics. "The party is suffering for the problems of the past few years."
So far, no single figure has emerged as the fresh, widely known new face of the party. Its two congressional leaders, Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, are holdovers from the last Congress.
McConnell, a 24-year Senate veteran, is respected for his ability to use his 41-member caucus effectively, but he's not viewed as a charismatic figure. Boehner has never been fully trusted by diehard conservatives, and his backslapping style is often regarded as too accommodating.
Republicans, however, counter that they'll rebound, and soon.
The budget, said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., isn't a good test of the party's strength.
"We are still very relevant here," he said. "Are we relevant on the budget, though? Probably not." It only takes 50 votes to pass the budget in Senate, which currently has 99 members, with one Minnesota seat still vacant. Cutting off debate requires 60 votes.
Corker and others point to the February economic stimulus deliberations as more emblematic of the party's status.
In the House, every Republican opposed the bill. "It was exciting to see them stay together on key votes," Littlefield said.
In the Senate, the Democrats couldn't win passage without the support of three moderate Republicans, and they negotiated with Obama before lending their support.
Senators thought the impact of their three colleagues foreshadowed how the party can wield clout. On energy legislation, for instance, Republicans are trying to play key roles.
"Call me cautiously optimistic," said Jim DePeso, the policy director of Republicans for Environmental Protection.
"Putting together an energy bill is like a chemistry experiment," DePeso said. "Just the right partisan and regional ingredients in just the right combination must be mixed to ensure success. Get it wrong and it blows up."
On health care, too, Republicans are confident that they'll be heard. The Obama administration has said it wants a broad consensus on health care, and one major effort, the "Healthy Americans Act," was introduced in February by 13 senators — seven Democrats, five Republicans and one independent.
The bill would guarantee affordable private health care for every American by offering tax breaks and subsidies for coverage.
However, it's still not clear whether the public will see the GOP as trying to get things done, or, as "the party of no" as Democrats want to paint it. For that matter, will Americans see the Democrats as inclusive or partisan?
Pitney sees hope for the GOP's prospects, though not for reasons the Republicans would like. "I don't think people are paying much attention to what Republicans are doing right now," he said.
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