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GOP Issues Jobs Agenda to Revive Its Message

Tom Williams/Roll Call
Sen. Rob Portman released a new jobs plan Tuesday.

Senate Republicans on Tuesday unveiled a comprehensive job-creation proposal as they sought to reassure voters that their emphasis on government spending and debt had not diverted their attention from jump-starting the economy.

Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio) authored the seven-point plan, intended both as a legislative blueprint and unifying rhetorical guide to help Republicans discuss jobs and economic growth. Though Senate Republicans declined to criticize their leadership, some acknowledged that current events and the issue of the day on Capitol Hill might have left the politically perilous impression that they were ignoring the American public’s No. 1 priority: jobs.

“We’ve got to be sure that the American people don’t think that Republicans aren’t focused on jobs and the economy. We are — like a laser,” Portman said during an interview before presenting his plan to the full GOP Conference. “Sometimes, I think with the discussion on spending reductions, we aren’t communicating clearly enough on the jobs and economic issues.”

Individually, most Republican Senators regularly tell reporters and their constituents that economic growth and private-sector job creation are directly tied to the significant reduction of government spending and debt — that one cannot occur without the other. But as a Conference — and to some degree, as a party — Republicans have at times appeared more focused on cutting spending, reducing debt, repealing the health care reform law and myriad additional issues.

Democrats suffered from this image last cycle on their way to a disastrous midterm election, as they pushed health care, energy and financial reforms in the midst of stubbornly high unemployment rates. The potential for Congressional Republicans to experience similar voter discontent has not been lost on the GOP, and the party’s House majority recently moved to reinvigorate its jobs agenda.

“That’s [voters’] No. 1 concern, is jobs. So we have to take all these issues and do a better job of relating them to economic growth and job creation, and that’s what this is about,” said Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee is his caucus’s chief political strategist. “We’ve got to get that message through. The challenge of course is that there’s so much going on, it’s hard to penetrate the fog.”

The Senate Republican plan was initiated by Portman soon after the 112th Congress began, and after months of work it was given a partial test run by Members during the just-completed recess. The blueprint — highly critical of President Barack Obama — includes proposals to overhaul the tax code, reduce federal regulations on businesses and increase domestic energy exploration and production. Portman said some aspects of the plan would end up as amendments to other pieces of legislation.

Democrats were unimpressed. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he had been told by his staff that the Republicans were unveiling a jobs agenda but said they had “a funny way to start” their focus on the issue, given they have been blocking his efforts to conclude action on the small-business bill, which has been on the floor since March 10.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said the Republicans praise for the fiscal year 2012 spending plan proposed by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) calls into question the Senate GOP’s commitment to job creation as a priority over reducing the size and scope of the federal government. The vice chairwoman of the Democratic Policy and Communications Center indicated that the Republicans’ votes on Ryan’s budget would signal their seriousness on the jobs issue.

“I absolutely think that their budget reduces opportunity for jobs and economic growth. It’s not rhetoric to say we’ve got to out-innovate and out-educate in a global economy. That’s the way we’re going to create jobs,” said Stabenow, who is up for re-election in 2012.

For Senate Republican leaders, Portman’s plan serves as a vehicle to unify the party’s message, similar to how the GOP approached the fight over health care reform. Republicans believe that the consistency and unity of their message during that yearlong legislative battle helped the GOP win at the ballot box, even as the health care reform bill became law.

Sen. Mike Johanns said the problem for Republicans has not necessarily been inadequate focus on jobs, noting that he and most of his colleagues prioritize the subject in their discussions with the press and with their constituents. But he conceded that Portman’s plan, written in conjunction with a working group of other GOP Senators, would be helpful.

“More unity in the message is a good thing, and I see that happening,” the Nebraska Republican said.

Republicans also hope that introducing a concrete plan shows voters that they are committed to addressing the jobs issue while easing the way for Members to discuss the matter on a regular basis. “Having it written down allows us to say, ‘We have a plan,’” said one Senate Republican leadership aide.

“We want to make certain that we’re acting and talking about the issue that the American people think is the most important to them and to our country’s future,” Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) said. “They’re telling us in our conversations and in our polls that creating private sector jobs is at the top of the list.”

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.

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