Armed with fresh political momentum for the first time in months, House Republicans headed to a Maryland retreat Wednesday looking to shape a unified message on immigration, debt and health care that could offer voters an alternative rather than just persistent opposition to President Barack Obama.
The three-day workshop will say a lot about the party’s plans and fate in 2014. The Republicans start with a powerful motivator – dogged opposition to Obama, whose approval ratings remain around 40 percent and who is proving a serious liability to Democrats in more conservative states.
Obama gave Republicans new ammunition in his State of the Union address Tuesday night, as he vowed to use his executive power to implement policies Congress won’t. Republicans saw his action as a gift: They think they can express outrage while also looking statesmanlike.
“Rather than trying to write laws from the Oval Office, he should put down his pen, pick up the Constitution, and start working with Congress to solve the problems facing our nation,” said Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee.
Republicans spent much of the past few years divided between hardcore conservatives, including those involved with Scalise’s group, and establishment types, notably the House of Representatives leadership.
At the moment, the leadership is ascendant. Led by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, they joined with Democrats to enact budget and spending legislation in recent weeks that should prevent government shutdowns for the next two years.
The two parties also came together to write broad farm and defense legislation. The House on Wednesday passed a far-reaching measure setting agriculture policy for the next five years. The Senate is expected to concur as soon as next week.
Now come the tougher political tasks: tackling immigration, debt and health care.
The Republican establishment has been eager to look sensitive and decisive on immigration, particularly since 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney won only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote.
After meeting with House Republicans earlier this week, Boehner vowed that the retreat will produce a set of principles the party can push on immigration. It is expected to stop short of the Senate’s comprehensive 2013 plan, written partly by Republicans, which included a 13-year path to citizenship as well as tighter border security.
“We’ll have a discussion about immigration reform,” Boehner said. “We’re going to outline our standards, principles of immigration reform and have a conversation with our members.”
The goals are expected to include a broader program for guest workers, new steps to legal status for undocumented immigrants and tougher border security. There have been rumblings among some Republicans that even those goals may go too far, and there is skepticism among others that any debate should wait until after the election year.
Some Republicans are reluctant to put forth any proposal until Obama gets more engaged.
“We want to do immigration reform, but if you have a president who has already shown that he’s willing to violate the law anytime that he wants to . . . why would we believe that he’s going to enforce new laws when he’s not enforcing current laws?” said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho.
The most likely hope for Republican unity involved health care. Party officials are convinced that skepticism about Obamacare will help them in this fall’s elections, though they also are aware that they need to be able to peddle an alternative.
Obama on Tuesday chided House Republicans for voting more than 40 times to repeal or replace parts of the law, efforts that got nowhere in the Senate. Earlier this week, three Republican senators offered a plan that would not force people to buy coverage but aims to bring down costs.
One fight unlikely to be waged is a showdown over the debt limit. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew told Congress last week that the limit needs to be raised by Feb. 7 or the government will need extraordinary measures to pay its obligations. Even those devices, though, will last only until the end of that month, he said.
The last time the ceiling was about to be reached, Republicans insisted last fall on defunding or diluting the Affordable Care Act before agreeing to a new limit. That strategy helped trigger a 16-day partial government shutdown in October. The debt limit was suspended, Republicans didn’t get the Obamacare changes they sought, but they did get most of the political blame.
Republicans are talking about seeking some concessions before they agree to a new limit, but Boehner conceded they have little leverage.
“I don’t think we Republicans want to default on our debt,” he said, and “the president’s made clear he doesn’t want to negotiate.”
As a result, Boehner said, “the options available continue to be narrower.” He didn’t see an impenetrable stalemate.
“I’m confident that we’ll be able to find a way,” Boehner said.