Don’t scare the people.
It’s a curious goal for the party of power on Capitol Hill, but that’s what incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told the Washington Post he wants for Republicans in the next two years.
McConnell is thinking pragmatically. He knows that although Americans have swept Republicans into majorities in the U.S. House and Senate, they remain wary of Congress as a whole, and extreme Republicans in particular. Scare the people, and voters will be reluctant to put a Republican in the White House in 2016.
Instead, after years of saying no to President Obama, the GOP must be the party of yes. Republicans have to initiate policy, not reject it. They need an agenda that’s responsible, not reactionary. They need to control the far right faction of the party.
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In other words, don’t scare the people. How to do this in the legislative session that began Tuesday? Here are three ways:
Pass Keystone legislation
This one is easy, which is why it’s likely the first significant bill Congress will pass. It’s also likely to be vetoed by President Obama. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for Republicans.
The Keystone XL pipeline would transport oil-like bitumen from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico to be refined mostly for U.S. consumption. (The oil that’s produced will go on the market, where most of it will be purchased for domestic use.)
The pipeline also will create jobs – many of them temporary, but that’s still work to people who don’t have employment. Plus, Obama’s own State Department has concluded in several reports that the pipeline will have minimal if any negative environmental impact.
Republicans might have enough support to override a veto. If not, they can claim that Obama blocked reasonable legislation that most Americans support. That’s a political role-reversal that could come in handy.
Get proactive about health care
A Republican-led U.S. Senate may pass an Obamacare repeal – just as the House has done dozens of times in the past four years. Doing so, however, would be a hollow political gesture that won’t survive a presidential veto.
A better approach: Develop a plan that offers Americans an opportunity to evaluate how they want to move forward with health care. Senate Republicans, including North Carolina’s Richard Burr, have been working on such a draft, as have some House Republicans. Those plans touch on several ideas the GOP has advocated as alternatives to the Affordable Care Act, such as high-risk pools and allowing insurance to be sold across state lines.
Thus far, however, they are only ideas. Republicans need to bring them together into comprehensive legislation, and soon. This spring, the U.S. Supreme Court may reject subsidies that are at the core of Obamacare, presenting an opportunity for a serious alternative.
The bar will be high. Polls have shown Americans love pieces of Obamacare. If those are threatened because of a lawsuit Republicans supported, the GOP could suffer if it has no replacement to offer.
The best approach would be to fix the Affordable Care Act’s flaws, but that’s not a course Republicans will take. They should do more, however, than cast hapless votes for repeal.
Think small and compromise
Instead of bruising (and losing) battles on big and politically dangerous issues like immigration, Republicans would be better off concentrating on common ground-compromises with Democrats.
One starting point: Republicans and Democrats are expressing a willingness to raise federal fuel taxes to replenish the federal Highway Trust Fund. The gas tax, which stands at 18.4 cents per gallon, hasn’t been raised in more than two decades. The resulting shortfall is hurting America’s roads and bridges, which have fallen into disrepair.
Republican Sen. Bob Corker and Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy have proposed an increase of 12 cents per gallon over the next two years, with future increases linked to inflation. Congress should do so before existing highway legislation expires in May.
Republicans also can work with the president on trade, specifically the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership between the U.S. and 11 countries that ring the Pacific Ocean. That promising agreement could lower trade barriers and strengthen environmental and labor protections. Pro-trade Republicans could give the president “fast track” authority to negotiate an agreement.
What’s stopping them? Some Republicans, still angry at Obama over his executive action on immigration, don’t want to give the president anything. In fact, extreme conservatives want to litter legislation that might get the president’s signatures with unrelated amendments that will either kill the bills or guarantee a veto.
It’s the kind of behavior that has mired Washington in partisan gridlock. Republicans can rise above it now that they’re in power, or they can use that power to advance an extreme agenda. For Americans who want moderate, responsible governing, the latter would be frightening indeed.