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POLITICS: PennAve

House Republicans plan light workload for 2014, same as Dems in 2008

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Politics,Congress,Susan Ferrechio,Obamacare,John Boehner,2014 Elections,PennAve,Steny Hoyer

When the second session of the 113th Congress opened in early January, Democrats quickly fired off dozens of press releases to Republican districts across the country accusing the GOP of assembling a do-nothing agenda for 2014 that fails to address the country's most urgent needs.

Republican leaders, one Democratic missive said, "have an even more pathetic agenda in store for 2014 than in 2013, when they hurt middle-class families by obsessively focusing on repealing the Affordable Care Act and refusing to pass measures that would help create jobs, increase wages and strengthen the middle class."

The Democratic memo went out to more than 60 Republican-held districts they expect to be competitive in the November elections.

Republicans, who control only the House, have indeed refrained from drafting an aggressive legislative agenda for 2014. Their plan so far closely resembles their 2013 agenda and excludes major items like immigration reform, a minimum wage increase or a plan to replace the unpopular health care law.

But a lackluster agenda is nothing new in an election year, and it holds true for both parties, despite House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer's recent claim that the Republican majority was "the most unproductive in modern history."

Democrats in 2007 — a year before elections — pressed an ambitious agenda that included a "cap and trade" environmental bill to curb greenhouse gases, legislation boosting the minimum wage and a measure to slash student loan interest rates in half.

But in 2008, with November elections looming and polls showing that voters had soured on much of the Democratic agenda, House Democrats offered a new blueprint that was just as politically cautious as the one Republicans are crafting now.

"Democrats," the Washington Post reported in January 2008, "are thinking smaller, much smaller."

Like Republicans now, House Democrats in 2008 offered an election-year agenda long on familiar, popular issues but excluding any ambitious initiatives that could rankle voters. And that was when Democrats also controlled the Senate and White House.

It proved to be a smart move. Democrats not only held on to the House in November 2008 but expanded their majority by 21 seats.

Republicans are adopting a similar approach, targeting key issues important to their base while ducking politically risky controversies.

Among the GOP election-year priorities is a continuing effort to weaken or delay Obamacare, President Obama's signature legislative achievement, which became increasingly unpopular with the public after the president admitted that millions of people would not be allowed to keep existing health plans as he had promised they could back in 2009.

The GOP agenda — still under construction and expected to be a central topic of discussion at the party's retreat in late January — is also expected to include legislation to eliminate many federal regulations business interests complain are driving up their costs and undercutting the economic recovery. The GOP House also has to work out with the Democratic Senate specifics of a $1 trillion budget bill needed to avoid a government shutdown, like the one in October for which voters generally blamed Republicans.

The House calendar set by Republican leaders attests to their desire for a light election year. The House will be in session for just 11 days in January, 11 in February, 12 in March and 11 more in April.

"At the moment, Republicans want to keep the focus on Obamacare and deal with the big fiscal issues at hand," said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist and former top leadership aide in both the House and Senate. "This is especially true since Republican primaries are right around the corner and are putting pressure on lawmakers."

Brendan Daly, a Democratic strategist and former top aide to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said a low-key election year "makes sense from a Republican point of view," given the unpopularity of the health care law on which the GOP hopes to capitalize.

But, Daly warned, the GOP inaction "sets a record low" that could brand Republicans as a do-nothing party in the minds of 2014 voters.

"From one point of view, if you are a Tea Party person, they are happy with that and that's a good thing," Daly said. "But, if you are trying to appeal to the middle, you run a risk of 'you don't do anything.' "

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