GOP focuses on calming its divided ranks
Comprehensive immigration reform, tax reform, tweaks to the federal health-care law - bipartisan deals on each are probably dead in the water for the rest of this Congress.
"We don't have 218 votes in the House for the big issues, so what else are we going to do?" said Rep. Devin Nunes (R., Calif.), an ally of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R., Ohio). "We can do a few things on immigration and work on our principles, but in terms of real legislating, we're unable to get in a good negotiating position."
Added Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster who works closely with party leaders: "It is an acknowledgment of where they stand, where nothing can happen in divided government so we may essentially have the status quo. Significant immigration reform and fundamental tax reform are probably not going to happen."
In that vein, championing a handful of bills on job growth, energy, and regulatory policy - all targeted for swing voters but unlikely to win Democratic support - has become a priority, with party leaders planning to spend months seeking consensus among Republicans and avoiding talks on controversial fronts.
"It's a natural progression," said Republican Vin Weber, a former Minnesota representative. "If you're a Republican in Congress, you've learned that when we shut down the government, we lose. Now that we've had some success in avoiding another shutdown, our fortunes seem to be rising, so maybe we don't want big things to happen."
Republican leaders are also quite aware of voters' skepticism about the GOP's policies, and most believe that a softer sell, rather than an assertive attempt to pass major bills, is a smart play. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in January found that just 19 percent of Americans have confidence in congressional Republicans to make the right decisions for the country, while 80 percent do not.
In late January, House Republican leaders launched their small-ball strategy with a letter to President Obama following the State of the Union address, where they "identified four initial areas" of potential agreement - citing job creation, natural-gas development, workplace rules, and federally funded research but few items that could cause unrest with the party's powerful bloc of conservatives.
In an article published last week by National Review, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.) underscored the leadership's approach. "While we will tackle many issues this year in Congress, we will focus on four key areas that demand our immediate attention," he wrote, once again talking up Republican proposals on job growth and energy, as well as on education and tax policy.
Left unmentioned by Cantor: brokering a compromise on immigration reform and adjusting the federal minimum wage - two issues at the top of the agenda for Obama and congressional Democrats.
At a news conference last week, Boehner blamed Obama for the partisan tensions and knocked him for not responding to the GOP's January letter. "We've seen no response from the president - nothing," he said. "If the president won't work with us on these simple issues, who would ever expect that he'd be able to work with us on the more complex issues that we face?"
This month, Boehner also threw cold water on the prospect of an immigration-reform package landing on the president's desk this year.
"There's widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws," Boehner said. "It's going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes."