Republicans Act With Air, if Not a Vote, of Confidence

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WASHINGTON -- A year ago this month, Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin stood on the floor of the House and declared that the ideals of small government, privatized health care and rigorous spending discipline captured in the budget plan about to pass the House would and should be central to the 2012 election campaign.

"It is so rare in American politics to arrive at a moment in which the debate revolves around the fundamental nature of American democracy and the social contract, but that is exactly where we are today," Mr. Ryan said. Months later, his selection as the Republicans' vice-presidential nominee would place the House budget, which he had devised, at the center of the policy debate in the presidential campaign.

Then he and Mitt Romney lost -- Mr. Ryan's home state, every swing state but North Carolina, and 332 electoral votes. Democrats locked down control of the Senate, which they had once been expected to lose, and chipped away at the Republicans' House majority, sending the Republican Party into a round of soul-searching that persists today -- everywhere, it seems, but on Capitol Hill.

"He got a mandate to be president. We got a mandate to have a majority in the House," Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio said in an interview Thursday, dismissing any suggestion that election results should dictate Republican accession to President Obama's wishes.

"His idea of compromise is, 'Do it my way,' " said Mr. Boehner, the highest-ranking elected Republican in the country. Mr. Boehner's obligation, he said, is "to continue to fight for our principles as a party."

In Congress, Republicans are pushing an agenda that is almost identical to the one that their party lost with in November, with no regrets and few efforts to reframe it even rhetorically. The House will vote this week on the third iteration of Mr. Ryan's budget, which would again try to turn Medicare into a subsidy for private insurance purchases, slash the top income tax rate and cut deeply into programs the president campaigned to protect.

On Wednesday, Senate Republicans forced a vote to eliminate financing for the president's health care law. The effort failed, 52-45, but it was at least the 54th time that one chamber or the other had voted on a proposal to repeal all or part of the law, which was enacted three years ago.

On the Sunday political talk shows, a few conciliatory words from rank-and-file Republicans were all but drowned out by the resolute tone of Republican Congressional leaders. Mr. Boehner said on the ABC program "This Week" that Mr. Obama had harvested the fruits of his election victory on Jan. 1, with a deal that allowed tax rates to rise on annual income over $450,000. That covered a smaller group than the $250,000 threshold the president campaigned on.

"The president got his tax hikes on January the first," Mr. Boehner said. "The talk about raising revenue is over. It's time to deal with the spending problem."

Republicans in the House and Senate are standing firmly in the way of Mr. Obama's second-term agenda, with a message that is striking when set against the results of an election just four months ago: Mr. President, you have to come to us.

Representative Lynn Jenkins of Kansas, a member of the House Republican leadership, emerged from a closed-door meeting with Mr. Obama last week and declared, "I'm encouraged to have heard from the president today, but more encouraged that perhaps this is an indication he is willing to change course."

Which raises the question: What are elections for?

"Continuing to double down on policies that have been firmly rejected by the American people flies in the face of everything the Republican Party said they would do in the aftermath of losing the popular vote for the fifth time in the last six elections," said Dan Pfeiffer, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama.

Of course, Republican lawmakers interpret the latest election differently. "I think they are claiming too much of a mandate," said Senator John Hoeven, Republican of North Dakota. "Number one, it was a close presidential election. Number two, the Republicans won the House, and they can lay claim to the same mandate. So to me, that's a wash."

Mr. Boehner said firmly that he did not believe that the ideals and programs pressed by Republicans in the past two years had much to do with the party's electoral showing.

Rather than change course, "we have to do a better job communicating our principles to hard-working taxpayers," he said in the interview last week. "I don't think we did a very good job of that in the 2012 election."

After President Lyndon Johnson's landslide victory in 1964, House Republicans ousted their leader, brought in a new generation and proposed a host of what they called "constructive alternatives." In 1981, after Ronald Reagan stormed to power, the House speaker, Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr., a Democrat, lay low in the opening months of the Reagan presidency, watching an alliance of Republicans and Southern Democrats enact much of the new president's sweeping agenda. The Republican losses in the midterm election of 1998 shocked the party and cost Newt Gingrich his speakership.

But as convincing as it was, Mr. Obama's victory in November did not compare to those political earthquakes, said Donald R. Wolfensberger, a senior scholar at the Wilson Center's Congress Project.

David Winston, a Republican strategist whose Winston Group conducts polls for the House Republican leadership, said: "One of the great failings of the Romney campaign was that they made the election a referendum on Obama, not a policy debate. There never was a real choice."

Republicans say they are being resolute in sticking to principles they believe in. Because the new House budget -- unlike the last two -- purports to bring the nation's finances into balance, Republicans believe they can go on offense and contrast their plan with Democratic ones, which would maintain budget deficits indefinitely.

But also at work are two political forces: the gerrymandering of Congressional districts, which has made most House members more concerned about primary challenges then general elections, and the coming 2014 midterm election, which Republicans believe will follow tradition and favor them. Only once since the start of the 20th century has the midterm election of a president's second term cost the party out of power any seats.

Even moderate Republicans in the House took away from the 2012 election a message very different from the one that Democrats say the electorate sent. Representative Charlie Dent, Republican of Pennsylvania, said Democrats had attacked Republican House candidates mercilessly on their votes for the previous Ryan budget, focusing especially on its prescription to replace Medicare with a subsidy that seniors would use to buy private health insurance. Almost all of them survived.

It did not hurt that Mr. Obama, who won 52 percent of the votes in Mr. Dent's district in 2008, took only 48 percent last year after a Republican-controlled legislature redrew the boundaries.

"What came out of the election that was useful was that we could talk about entitlements in a thoughtful manner," Mr. Dent said. "We're ready to have that conversation."

Representative Steve Israel of New York, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said he still believed Republicans would pay a price for not changing course. Historically, Mr. Israel said, two-term presidents have one bad midterm election, and Mr. Obama already had a catastrophic one in 2010. Last year, he said, Republican Congressional candidates were able to buffer Democratic attacks with the broader presidential election.

"In 2014, they are uncloaked," Mr. Israel said. "They have only themselves to run on, and we have only them to run against."

Jeremy W. Peters and Jim Rutenberg contributed reporting.

nation

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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