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House GOP recasts agenda as White House alternative, not opposition

January 30, 2014 at 6:08 PM EST
While President Obama pushed his economic agenda on the road, House Republicans met to discuss their way forward on major issues, including immigration. Gwen Ifill gets views on the year’s political outlook from Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, Neera Tanden of the Center for American Progress and Andrew Rudalevige from Bowdoin College.
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GWEN IFILL: President Obama hit the road for day two of his annual post-State of the Union push, as House Republicans traveled to their annual retreat in Maryland.

NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman reports on the day’s events.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio: It’s important that we show the American people that we’re not just the opposition party. We’re actually the alternative party.

KWAME HOLMAN: From their annual retreat on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, House Speaker John Boehner and his fellow Republicans aimed to dispel the notion that they’re to blame for lack of action on major issues.

Majority Leader Eric Cantor urged President Obama to seek them out, instead of just issuing executive orders.

REP. ERIC CANTOR, R-Va.: The president did say the other night, he said, look, in America, it’s always been if you work hard and you’re responsible, you get ahead. Well, we agree. We Republicans have been talking about that for years and years. And so we want the president to work with us to try and solve that.

KWAME HOLMAN: In his State of the Union address, the president painted the House GOP as the roadblock, on immigration, for instance.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It is time to heed the call of business leaders, labor leaders, faith leaders, law enforcement, and fix our broken immigration system.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

BARACK OBAMA: Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have acted. And I know that members of both parties in the House want to do the same.

KWAME HOLMAN: The House Republicans charged today it’s Senate Democrats who’ve been stalling key bills.

As for immigration, Speaker Boehner signaled a readiness to act, but he gave no details.

JOHN BOEHNER: This problem’s been around for at least the last 15 years. It’s been turned into a political football. I think it’s unfair. And so I think it’s time to deal with it. But how we deal with it is going to be critically important. You know, it’s one thing to pass a law. It’s another thing to have the confidence of the American people behind that law as you’re passing it.

KWAME HOLMAN: Boehner did send a set of principles to the party rank-and-file. Among other things, it calls for providing a chance for citizenship for children brought to U.S. illegally.

But Mr. Obama kept the pressure on in a speech at job training at a General Electric plant in Waukesha, Wis.

BARACK OBAMA: And the question for folks in Washington is whether they’re going to help or they’re going to hinder that progress, whether they’re going to waste time creating new crises that slow things down or they’re going to spend time creating new jobs and opportunity.

KWAME HOLMAN: From there, the president traveled to a high school in Nashville, Tenn. A student there was killed Tuesday night in an off-campus shooting.

GWEN IFILL: So, how are the agendas of the president and congressional Republicans shaped by the political realities they now face?

We explore that with Michael Gerson, Washington Post columnist and former chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush, Neera Tanden, president of the left-leaning Center for American Progress. She served in both the Obama and Clinton administrations. And Andrew Rudalevige, professor of government at Bowdoin College and author of the book “The New Imperial Presidency: Renewing Presidential Power After Watergate.”

What did the speech, Neera Tanden, tell you about where the president and the presidency stands right now?

NEERA TANDEN, Center for American Progress: Well, I think the president was really trying to focus on the country’s biggest problems, lead where he can.

I think that there was a realism that not that much is going to get through Congress. I’m actually optimistic about immigration reform, but past that immigration reform, it seems like he recognizes there is a limit to what he can do in Washington, and he is not just limited by Washington. He can do things in the country as well.

GWEN IFILL: Michael, you have had a hand in crafting these hydra-headed State of the Union speeches with so many people contributing to it. What did that speech tell you and the Republican action to it tell you about where things stand now?

MICHAEL GERSON, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush: Well, I think it’s first worth saying that wherever there’s a tribute to a wounded warrior, it’s a great moment. That was a deeply memorable moment in that speech, and I think it was great that the president did that.

All that said, I will differ a little bit. I think a lot of the policy in the speech was modest, a lot of it recycled, pretty generic, from a Democratic perspective, not a lot of innovation in the speech. And that that’s probably appropriate for a second term, when the expectations are lowered.

But it’s a real contrast with this president even last year coming out of his re-election, where he pushed the Congress hard on gun control and environment and some other issues. So I think we’re seeing a big change in the expectation, but the president did give his own party a theme, give the American people a raise, for the midterms.

That’s a real important goal for him going in. If he loses the Senate, it’s important to his presidency.

GWEN IFILL: But I want to ask you both briefly what — does partisanship demand modesty at this point, exactly where Washington is now?

NEERA TANDEN: Yes, I mean, I think the challenge is, you can’t judge this president by the fact that Congress isn’t passing many pieces.

I mean, to say he’s repeating things he did before, well, one of the challenges was that there’s a lot of dysfunction in Congress itself. The House of Representatives isn’t passing his legislation. So I give president credit for trying wherever he can to make positive change.

And I think he is absolutely limited in that, because he doesn’t have a partner in the legislative process in Congress. And so I think the challenge — to judge him harshly and not judge them harshly I think is a little unfair.

GWEN IFILL: Michael?

MICHAEL GERSON: I think there’s some blame that deserves to go all around here.

But I did participate in this process. And sometimes you can come up with creative policy that puts the other side on the defensive and maybe get some things done. Now, the president did that in a couple of small areas, in my view: on the expansion of EITC, which the Republicans could do.

GWEN IFILL: The Earned Income Tax Credit, yes.

MICHAEL GERSON: The expansion of a new savings mechanism for low-income people.

But that was pretty rare in this speech. I don’t think there was much in that category. And I do hold the president accountable for that.

GWEN IFILL: Andrew Rudalevige, as the nation shows a lot of skepticism and not a whole lot of optimism about Washington and the ability to get past these things, do these moments count?

ANDREW RUDALEVIGE, Bowdoin College: Well, they count in that they try to set the agenda for the coming year.

The president here obviously has the biggest audience that he will have all year. It’s an audience that’s diminished over time, as broadcasting and viewing habits have fragmented. But, nonetheless, it’s his best opportunity to set the tone for the year with the American public and to try to get members of Congress to be pressured in a way towards supporting his agenda.

As was mentioned, this in a way wound up treading water a little bit politically, perhaps, a lot of proposals on the table, not as many executive actions proposed actually as we’d been led to believe. But they could be important in allowing again the president to set the agenda towards the midterms.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you this. Today, we heard John Boehner, the speaker of the House, tell fellow Republicans, we want to be the alternative, not the opposition. And we heard the president in the speech, as you point out, not really throw the gauntlet down that much, but talk about ladders of opportunity, language like that.

Is that what the American public now demands, this kind of optimistic talk?

ANDREW RUDALEVIGE: Well, certainly, it was a more cooperative, conciliatory speech, again, than we have been led to believe.

The president has a few times during his administration signaled a turn to a more administrative strategy. The we can’t wait strategy that was unveiled I think it was October 2011 tried to lay down a record of activity towards the presidential election in 2012. And here we’re seeing a return to that. Given stalemate on Capitol Hill, the president wants to sort of highlight the fault — the fact, rather, that any inactivity is not his fault. If only members of Congress would come to him, he would be able to act.

And, of course, members of the Republican majority in the House are saying the same thing. If only the president would come halfway towards them, we could get something done, the end result being that very little is likely to get done.

GWEN IFILL: Michael, let me ask you this about the alternative vs. the opposition language that John Boehner used. I heard Michael — Marco Rubio use it yesterday.

Is that sustainable, when the Tea Party is really the party of opposition?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I think there’s a real distinction here between the party of Congress, where if you’re in a safe House district, you have a different political dynamic, as many of these House members do, than if you’re trying to lead a national party and to have a message on immigration or other things.

So there’s a huge cleavage here. The national party, RNC did a report last year where they know they have to appeal to minorities, women, younger voters. And they want to craft a message to do that. Members of Congress have a different political dynamic. So some of this is — only gets resolved in the presidential primaries, where you have the emergence of a candidate that can give shape now toward repositioning of the Republican Party.

GWEN IFILL: And does the president’s language count in this, too, when he talks about ladders of opportunity and he talks — he steps out of the way to allow the Republicans to lead the way, for instance, on immigration? Why does that make you optimistic?

NEERA TANDEN: I thought he was — I thought he really talked about immigration in ways that would attract Republican support. He talked about it in terms of economic growth and competitiveness.

And so he didn’t throw down the gauntlet on any particular issue. And I think the real issue this year…

GWEN IFILL: Except giving America a raise.

NEERA TANDEN: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

NEERA TANDEN: No, but on immigration reform itself, he didn’t say, there has to be a path for citizenship or I won’t sign it. He’s trying to move that process along without getting in the way.

And I think the real issue is, I think the rest will really be for Speaker Boehner in the next few months whether he wants to pass legislation, to be looking like there’s a Republican Caucus that is solving the country’s problems, ready to act, or simply obstruct.

And I think this language that we’re seeing in the last couple of days is something we should all welcome. An alternative means actually providing ideas to solve the country’s problems, not just say no to everything.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Rudalevige, let’s talk about some things which require maybe a little bit of legislative action, say, universal pre-K in education or climate change. Is there any room for those kinds of things to actually get action in a midterm election year?

ANDREW RUDALEVIGE: Well, I think there are — can be action on things that both parties see as mutually beneficial, in their own political interests.

As we move towards the midterm, the parties obviously need to burnish their brand. The Democrats want to boost turnout in the midterm among their own constituencies, constituencies that tend to be underrepresented in midterm elections. That electorate tends to be older, whiter, wealthier.

These are demographics that have moved more towards the Republican Party. And, of course, from the Republican point of view, they don’t want to do anything to dissuade that base from coming out. So where you could see action, I think, are on things like immigration reform, where there is a clear political interest from both parties moving forward.

I think something like pre-K, education generally, remember the No Child Left Behind Act is something like seven years overdue for reauthorization. There are issues hanging out there where both parties could see it in their interest to move forward. And that I think would be beneficial if they could do that.

GWEN IFILL: Low-hanging fruit that’s out there.

But are there political incentives or disincentives for either political party at this particular point in history to act or not to act, Michael?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, some of it is a long-term/short-term situation.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

MICHAEL GERSON: The Republican Party can’t win national elections with 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, for example. That’s what Mitt Romney got in the last election. It was disastrous.

It’s not consistent. But a lot of members of Congress that I talk to believe that the president’s being badly hurt by Obamacare. They don’t want to give him victories or cover in the context of a midterm election. I think that’s a general belief.

If John Boehner were to move forward on a comprehensive reform of immigration, it would deeply divide his own caucus right now headed into a midterm election. So I think he’s raising a trial balloon. He’s seeing how people are going to react right now, and judging in this circumstance.

But I think conservatives are likely to react very badly. And he has a situation where a significant portion of his caucus aren’t — doesn’t follow him.

GWEN IFILL: What are the realistic political expectations?

NEERA TANDEN: So, I think the big issue is really the Republican primary season and whether we will have action after the primaries on something like immigration reform, when Republican House members feel less of a threat, when they’re in a safe district, they don’t have to worry about that Republican challenger from the right hitting them on an immigration bill.

And I think there will be a window past this primary season, but not in the heat of the elections, where we could see some action.

GWEN IFILL: Already, Neera Tanden of the Center for American Progress, Michael Gerson of The Washington Post, Andrew Rudalevige at Bowdoin College, thank you all very much.

MICHAEL GERSON: Thank you.

NEERA TANDEN: Thank you.

ANDREW RUDALEVIGE: Thank you.