Political Capital with John Harwood

Republicans: Finding Their Congressional Footing?

As Congress scrambled to finish up before summer vacation, I talked to House Republican Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri. Like all minorities in the House of recent vintage, the House GOP is getting steamrolled on vote after vote. But Blunt says he's happy with his party's positioning.

The Democratic majority has moved through a minimum wage increase and ethics reform--two critical elements of their attempt to demonstrate change from Republican rule. But efforts to pass energy legislation remain incomplete, with Democrats internally divided over new auto fuel efficiency standards. Democratic efforts to raise taxes on private equity firms and hedge fund managers haven't yet born fruit, with the politically savvy Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York leading efforts to stand in the way.

Congressional Scorecard

More importantly, Blunt was encouraged by the fact that he held all but five House Republicans against the Democratic proposal to add $50-billion in federal spending for children's health care. Senate Democrats' smaller $35-billion increase drew enough Republican votes to override President Bush's threatened veto. Democrats had counted on political fear of opposing kids to force more House Republicans to go along.

But the House GOP, like the White House, want to draw lines on spending as a way to united their dyspeptic party and take the first steps toward a political comeback. Never mind that Republicans showed little spending restraint when they were in the majority and sound to use pork-barrel spending to protect their power; that's why Democrats, traditionally stereotyped as the tax and spend party, actually hold a double digit edge over Republicans on the issue in our most recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll. Republicans want the issue back because it's powerful with their conservative base. That was a sharp enough tool for Blunt to hold his troops in line.

Washington's Loose Ends

If Republicans can re-establish their edge on spending and taxes--party leaders are itching to fight with Democrats over private equity tax hikes--Blunt thinks he can turn up the heat on the 60 Democratic House members holding districts that President Bush carried twice. Republicans aren't overflowing with enthusiasm over their prospects for regaining the majority in Nov. 2008; if they were, veteran Rep. Ray Lahood wouldn't have announced his retirement from Congress a few days ago. But Blunt feels that, as summer break begins, his party is at least beginning to find its footing again.

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