House Republicans on Thursday began a nearly two-week recess as they sought to solidify their political standing at home and clear the way for intense public scrutiny of Obamacare’s troubled rollout.
Still smarting from a politically damaging government shutdown that hogged the spotlight and obscured problems with the Affordable Care Act, House Republicans have deliberately shifted strategies. Rather than instigate high-stakes, politically risky confrontations with President Obama, they have embraced a more traditional, low-key approach that focuses on achieving incremental conservative reforms. This legislative strategy has a second, equally important purpose: It’s unlikely to distract from the GOP's aggressive investigation into Obamacare’s error-plagued implementation.
“People are focused on how bad Obamacare is. There’s no sense in putting up hyperpartisan bills that take attention away from that,” a senior Republican House aide told the Washington Examiner.
Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., described the reoriented House GOP game plan this way: “In many respects, what I would characterize this period as is ... getting back to governing.”
Since the 16-day government shutdown ended on Oct. 17, House Republicans have passed a collection of largely noncontroversial bills like the Retail Investor Protection Act and the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2013, among others. None were crafted with an eye toward grabbing headlines and none are the sort that fuel a political movement. But for Republicans, that’s by design.
During the shutdown, public polls showed that voters soured on the Republican Party in part because they viewed the GOP as putting ideology ahead of governing. Because they run the House, Republicans have a responsibility for some of the mundane aspects of running the government, and they have attempted late this month to satisfy that charge while using it as a vehicle to enact conservative reforms that might attract bipartisan support.
Republicans point to the water bill, which garnered 193 Democratic votes, as evidence of this strategy's success. House Republicans note that the quiet debate over the water bill and other legislation passed in late October has not overshadowed their committee oversight hearings into Obamacare. This inconspicuous approach extends to the budget negotiations with Senate Democrats, where House Budget committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has made clear he's aiming for a politically achievable deal that avoids another government shutdown.
“I’d say the two highest priorities are using oversight to continue to make the case against Obamacare, and using the budget conference to lock in the spending cuts we’ve achieved — without the tax hikes,” a House Republican leadership aide said.
The 13-day recess House lawmakers are taking was scheduled well before the government shutdown and a fight over funding paralyzed Washington, halting action on any other legislation and putting Republicans on the political defensive.
Democrats have been critical of House Republicans for not canceling the recess and staying to deal with the nation's business. House Republicans countered that they had passed a number of bills, including five appropriations measures, that were immediately killed by the Democratic Senate.
But privately, House Republicans acknowledge that significant time back home in the aftermath of the shutdown is a political necessity — at least for some of their members who emerged from the conflict weaker ahead of the 2014 elections.
“It’s a relief to be home — that’s what recharges my batteries,” Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., said. “It makes it possible to actually work here, by going home and hearing from my neighbors and my constituents and doing the singles and doubles that are all about district life and representing your people.”