GOP leaders are expanding their calls for repeal of the new health care law into a broader campaign theme that electing Republicans will provide the "check and balance" needed to parry Democrats and the Obama administration on an array of topics, with few specifics attached.
Since the health care bill passed in March, Republicans have been promising to "repeal and replace" it if they retake the majority in Congress. That message is becoming part of a broader theme that with unchecked power, Democrats have run amok, expanding government and inflating the national debt. Republicans hope to make the case to independent voters in particular that casting a ballot for the GOP is the way to restore balance and rein in Washington.
Congressional Democrats have assailed Republicans for repeating the "repeal and replace" mantra without offering any specific alternatives to the new health care system.
The debate became uncomfortable Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" when host David Gregory asked Republican campaign committee chairmen Sen. John Cornyn (Texas) and Rep. Pete Sessions (Texas) to outline specific things Republicans would do if they were in charge of the House and Senate.
After hammering Sessions for failing to provide specifics on the GOP agenda, Gregory asked Cornyn whether Republicans would campaign on a promise to repeal and replace the health care reform bill if they win the majority.
"I think repeal and replace it with a common-sense solution that will bend the cost curve," Cornyn said. "This bill has almost no reform. Individual businesses, individuals and states are going to suffer a great financial loss as a result to the huge expansion of entitlements in this health care bill."
For House Republicans, repeal of the health care law has become a permanent part of the leadership's talking points.
House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) said action on "repeal and replace" would truly begin after the midterm elections.
"I think first we repeal the Pelosi Congress in 2010 and then we replace the Obama administration in 2012," he told reporters on Monday. "That's how we politically do it."
On the substance of replacing it, Pence said Republicans have already offered legislation that would be better than the current law. House Republicans floated a health care plan last year focusing on low-cost proposals such as allowing insurance to be purchased across state lines, allowing small businesses to band together to get cheaper rates and limiting medical malpractice lawsuits.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) on Friday filed a discharge petition to force the repeal of the bill before the midterms.
While Democrats may deride "repeal and replace" as a meaningless talking point, Republicans are firmly committed to not only using it but expanding it beyond health care: Pence and other Republicans also said they plan to fold the financial regulatory reform bill into their "repeal and replace" messaging.
Republicans are also exploring a number of other potential proposals for counteracting the growth of government, aides said. For instance, Republicans are considering a plan to conduct a top-down review of recent regulations and spending initiatives to target administration actions that they claim are curbing job growth. Putting together specific proposals for post-election efforts are key "so there's an example of where a Republican can say, Here, I have an idea'" while still critiquing Democrats, a Senate GOP aide said.
But the difficulty Sessions and Cornyn had discussing how the GOP would govern underscored the dangers of being too specific. Offering specific legislative proposals is particularly dangerous for Republicans in midterm elections since "it makes it about us and not about them," a GOP operative said. And Republicans want the elections to be referendums on "them" — President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress.
According to the operative, national Republicans understand that there is a limit to the help they can give to candidates this late in the election cycle. As a result, several Republicans said, they will try to keep as much of the focus as possible on their broader argument that a strong GOP is needed to control the Democrats.
After the election, "the president is still going to be the president, and he is still going to set the agenda," a Senate GOP leadership aide said. The GOP will make the case that its candidates are "a check and balance to his government ... [by] laying out themes that can be practically implemented by a beefed-up Republican caucus or majority," the aide said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell gave a preview of this messaging effort earlier this month during a speech to a group of young Republicans. "What Republicans are offering the American people is a pledge, a pledge to do everything in our power to restore government to a size and scope that leads to some semblance of competency," the Kentucky Republican said.