During a two-day retreat on Maryland's frozen eastern shore,
Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives also sought to shed
the image they acquired during last October's government shutdown as
a cantankerous opposition party.
The smaller-government Tea Party faction and more moderate
"establishment" House Republicans are linking arms around a strategy
for the first time since they took control of the chamber in early
2011 — if all goes according to plans hatched during the closed-door
retreat 85 miles east of Washington.
Republicans have seized on "Obamacare" as a way of turning around
their image. Instead of just insisting on its repeal, as they have
done nearly 50 times in House votes, House Speaker John Boehner's
troops plan to craft legislation to replace Obama's healthcare law
that aims to provide health coverage for millions of the uninsured.
"I think this is going to be very unifying," said Representative
Phil Roe, a Tea Party-backed Republican, obstetrician and chief
sponsor of a healthcare reform proposal that could move through the
House in coming months.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's declaration that Republicans
would hold a floor vote this year on an alternative to Obamacare was
one of the biggest applause lines of the retreat, Roe told Reuters.
Maybe it was former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz, a keynote
speaker at the retreat, who gave Republicans the motivation they
needed to focus on working as a team.
Or maybe it was the lack of an immediate fiscal crisis that made
Republicans conclude that they will have to do something to fill out
the rest of the year before the November congressional elections.
"I think in order to maximize our year, it's important that we show
the American people that we're not just the opposition party, we're
actually the alternative party," Boehner told reporters at a
Thursday press conference.
Republican Representative Raul Labrador of Idaho, like Roe a Tea
Party favorite, told Reuters the party wants a "positive" and
"My sense is that party leaders are desperate to improve the party
brand name as they move into the midterm election year," said Sarah
Binder, a senior fellow at the liberal-leaning Brookings
Institution. And that, she said, "entails finding an agenda that
Republicans can be for."
"This strikes me as strategic, rather than evidence of the mellowing
of ideological differences within the party," Binder added.
Divisions remain, in particular on immigration reform, but Labrador
says many Republicans don't want to debate it this year because
their differences would then be on display and possibly hurt the
party's chances of taking control of the Senate in November.
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Hispanics, a fast-growing segment of the U.S. population, voted
overwhelming for Obama, a Democrat, in the 2012 presidential
election. Some Republicans have expressed concern about hurting
their party for years to come by continuing to alienate Hispanics on
the immigration issue.
Boehner grabbed headlines at the retreat by floating a set of
principles for immigration legislation that included legalizing
millions of immigrants who either entered the United States
illegally or overstayed their visas.
But Boehner also told the gathering: "Nothing has been decided (on
immigration). We're here to listen," according to Roe. A "free-flow"
discussion followed, Roe said.
In some ways, it might be easier for House Republicans to find unity
in 2014 than it was in 2011, 2012 or 2013.
None of their rank-and-file is publicly clamoring for a
deficit-reduction showdown or threatening a default on the country's
debt — the issues that made the past three years so chaotic in
Instead, Republicans will try to tout their own answer to the
country's healthcare problem while knowing that anything they do is
unlikely to pass the Democratic-controlled Senate or escape an Obama
In the aftermath of October's government shutdown, Washington has
seen an unusually smooth operation of government.
Major bills — a two-year budget deal, a spending bill to execute the
first year of that deal, and a renewal of a massive farm law — have
all passed recently without the histrionics that marked the past
That does not mean that the Tea Party movement has thrown in the
towel and is marching lock-step behind more establishment
Republicans like Boehner, or that House Republicans have realigned
themselves for the long-term.
Republicans "smell victory. It's amazing what the prospect of a good
election will do for party unity," said Larry Sabato, who heads
University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
"Sometimes it's just a papering over the differences until after the
election," Sabato said, predicting that there will be plenty of time
after November's vote to see party divisions re-emerge.
(Additional reporting by David Lawder; editing by Caren Bohan and
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