House GOP goes 'alternative'

Two attendees wear GOP logo cut-off jean jackets during the third day of the Republican National Convention on Aug. 29, 2012 in Tampa, Florida.
Two attendees wear GOP logo cut-off jean jackets during the third day of the Republican National Convention on Aug. 29, 2012 in Tampa, Florida.

CAMBRIDGE, Md. -- House Republicans are looking to shed the “party of no” label that’s followed them after losing a whole year to congressional gridlock. The new buzzword: “alternative.”

 “It’s important we show the American people we're not just the opposition party, we're the alternative party,” Speaker John Boehner told reporters at a press conference ahead of the House GOP’s annual retreat.

You can see the reasons for this revamp in the polls. A whopping 81% of Americans disapproved of Congress in the most recent NBC/WSJ poll this month. Diving deeper into the numbers, Americans also tend to view Republicans as too unwilling to compromise, with 51% of respondents calling the GOP "too inflexible" versus just 39% who said the same for the president. Highlighting the divide, Obama's State of the Union was more conciliatory than many of his past speeches.

 How does the new Alt-GOP look compared to Classic GOP and Top 40 GOP? For one thing, there’s a bigger emphasis – rhetorically, at least – on cooperation instead of sabotage. House leaders stressed over and over that they are willing to treat their past differences with Democrats as water under the bridge if President Obama agrees to team up on a variety of modest legislative goals.

“We heard the president say that this should be a year of action and this is our goal also,” Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers said, referring to Obama’s State of the Union speech Tuesday.

To demonstrate their deal making bonafides, House Republican leaders released a jointly signed letter proposing the Democratic-controlled Senate take up several pieces of legislation the House has already passed related to goals Obama mentioned in his speech. Among them: a bill to reform federal jobs training programs, a bill to reduce regulations on natural gas pipelines, a bill that would let private sector employers offer comp time instead of overtime pay, and a bill that would cut public funding for party conventions and use the money to pay for medical research. Together, they’re part of a broader push to show the GOP has tangible ideas that work for common people and not just abstract nods to smaller government and deregulation.

Republican leaders stressed that on a variety of issues, the Senate has been the real basket case blocking progress. Obama called for expanding trade deals abroad, for example, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is dead set against pursuing legislation that would fast track negotiations amid opposition from labor groups.

 “The question is, ‘Is the president going to stand up to lead on this issue?” Boehner said. “We cannot pass this bill without his help. If this is one of his own priorities you would think he would have the Senate majority leader working with him."

 But the emphasis on all the small things Republicans want Congress to pass this year was overshadowed by a much more loaded topic: immigration. McMorris Rodgers mentioned “the need to fix what is a broken immigration system” in her opening remarks, but House leaders are still staying relatively quiet on the topic.  

They can only enjoy the silence for so long, though as immigration reform is definitely still alive. Boehner told reporters that he would brief members this afternoon on a new leadership-backed framework for a Republican immigration plan. It’s expected to include a proposal to legalize millions of undocumented immigrants, a huge conceptual leap that would put the House GOP closer to the White House and Senate’s position than ever before.

Conservatives are already wary of the plan, with even some Republicans who participated in bipartisan immigration reform talks earlier this year worried about dividing the party before the midterms. Congressman Greg Walden of Oregon, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, told reporters that a vote on the issue was "probably months out," which he noted would be too late for House Republicans to draw new primary challengers over the issue. 

National Republican leaders, however, are urging their colleagues to take the long view. While immigration’s impact on the midterm election is likely modest, improving the party’s image with Latinos is essential to avoiding another November rain like the 2012 election, where Romney’s “self-deportation” plan proved a loser in critical swing states like Colorado, Nevada, and Florida.  Obama received 71 percent of the Hispanic vote nationwide, exit polls showed.

There are still big questions about the details of the House GOP plan. Republicans have made clear they don’t support a “path to citizenship,” but it’s possible they might reach a compromise that lets many currently unauthorized immigrants obtain citizenship through existing channels instead. There’s also the issue of how they’ll handle border security and, much more controversially, whether they'll demand a new law allowing states like Arizona and Alabama to organize their own crackdowns on illegal immigration.

“You can’t begin the process of immigration reform without securing our borders and the ability to enforce our laws,” Boehner said. “Everyone in our conference understands this is the first step.”