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House GOP Treads Unfamiliar Path

For the first time since President Bush was elected, a House GOP Conference that has prided itself on constantly playing offense appears likely to spend much of its time through November playing defense.

Unlike the previous three years, Republican lawmakers will likely make it through 2004 without pushing through any major legislative initiatives and are instead poised to spend far more time preserving or defending their past accomplishments — and their stewardship of the economy — than selling new policies.

Republican Members and aides disputed the idea that they have lost their aggressiveness, arguing that they plan to move forward on a variety of fronts in 2004 to improve the economy and contrast their agenda with that of House Democrats.

“We do have bills in the works that are going to be big and bold and are going to be good for the economy,” said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), the Deputy Majority Whip in charge of dealing with coalitions.

But they also concede that they have already pushed into law their flagship initiatives on education (the No Child Left Behind Act), health care (the Medicare prescription drug bill) and tax cuts. Nothing Republicans do this year in any of those three areas will be of similar stature, though they attribute that more to electoral politics than a lack of aggressiveness.

“There’s clearly a sense that this time we’re going to be engaged in presidential politics more,” said Chief Deputy Majority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.). “It is going to be different because of that.”

Rogers attributed any perception that Republicans are on the run to the fact that the primary season has allowed Democrats and their criticisms to hog the spotlight for months.

“They want you to believe we’re on defense, but we’re on offense,” said Rogers. “What we’ve had is a monologue. ... In a dialogue, we win.”

While it is not unusual for the House to tackle a lighter load in an election year, House Republicans are in the unusual position of having to expend much of their efforts defending what they’ve already done.

When President Bush signed the Medicare prescription drug bill late last year, Republicans expressed confidence that the measure would go some way toward eroding the traditional Democratic advantage on health care issues.

But public reaction to the law has been mixed. Although Republicans strongly disagree with media suggestions that the bill is unpopular, they do not dispute the fact that many Americans are having trouble understanding the bill.

As a result of that confusion, House GOP lawmakers are continually being reminded by their leadership that they must hold town-hall meetings and do everything they can to convince their constituents that the Medicare law will help rather than hurt them.

Some Republicans privately concede that their message effort during the Medicare fight was less aggressive than it normally might have been because the party was too busy convincing its own Members to support the bill.

“I think we became a little complacent and dependent on the White House,” said a senior House GOP aide. “In the past, communications seemed to be much more in depth. There was a more united front on messaging.”

At the same time, many Republicans argue that the Medicare measure will serve to put the Democrats on the run.

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