Although Congressional Republicans have united around one goal — defeating President Barack Obama — they're suddenly finding themselves with ample time to wage a political campaign against the president but no clear leader around whom to build that attack.
Just two months ago, Hill Republicans were operating under the assumption that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney would be the presumptive nominee in the early weeks of 2012. Since then, Romney has faltered in key primary states, and the Congressional GOP has staked out several positions of its own — from backing off a key demand to fully pay for a payroll tax cut to homing in on a religious debate around the Obama administration's contraception policy.
With very few major legislative battles left to fill the C-SPAN hours between now and November, both parties are looking to test their agendas in a cycle defined as a referendum on Obama. But aides of both parties concede that task is not as simple as it would be if the outcome of the GOP presidential race were more certain.
"Absolutely," one Republican aide said about whether having a nominee makes a difference in strategy. "Once you're able to pull House campaigns, Senate campaigns and national campaigns together as much as possible, that's obviously going to better serve the overall case for the party."
Both parties have been gearing up their messaging operations. Republicans believe that regardless of who their nominee is — or how long it takes to choose him — they can present a strong case against Obama. And with Democrats planning their strategy around the president's State of the Union address, the GOP certainly will get a chance at it.
Leadership aides say Democrats during the next few months will look to move on Obama's manufacturing plan, including increased tax breaks for companies who bring back jobs domestically, his tuition relief proposals to lower interest rates on student loans and tax extender provisions that have expired. But they might not have a GOP presidential nominee to cast as their foil for those debates.
Meanwhile, Republicans say they will focus on tax code reform and rolling back the more than $500 billion in defense cuts triggered by the failure of last fall's Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction. A campaign against the massive defense cuts, criticized even by Obama's own Defense secretary, Leon Panetta, could play well for the GOP in swing states such as North Carolina and Virginia, home to many military bases and manufacturing companies that deal with defense.
All the while, there are still a few bills Republicans and Democrats hope will clear Congress before the campaign season gets into full swing, including a cybersecurity bill, U.S. Postal Service reform, a transportation bill and appropriations bills to fund the government for the next fiscal year.
But outside of appropriations, nothing rises to the level of "must pass." After all, Congress already dealt with the debt limit, the payroll tax cut, a fix for Medicare reimbursement for doctors and the top-line cap on spending for the year.
And if gridlock ensues on spending bills, Congress could always pass a continuing resolution to keep the government funded until an inevitable lame-duck session after the elections. A lame-duck session is already being eyed by leaders for consideration of how or whether to extend Bush-era tax breaks.
A Democratic aide indicated Republican leadership in the Senate has given committees the blessing to do their work in regular order but that the real test will be whether Republicans will allow those spending bills to go forward as the elections creep closer. And, of course, the demeanor of House Republicans will be key to that debate, given that the House originates spending bills and Republicans have had trouble persuading their rank and file to support compromise budget numbers.
The mix of political test votes and real work will be a strain on a Congress that has struggled to carry out the normal business of previous sessions. And Democrats think they can use this to their advantage, much like they feel like they did in December, when they were able to pin the near-failure to extend jobless benefits and a tax break for 160 million Americans on House Republicans.
"I think they're struggling right now," another Democratic aide said. "Their side is divided into two camps, those who feel like they need to support an affirmative agenda and then the other half that feels like they can sit back and do nothing and rely solely on this election being a referendum on the president."
The aide suggested that the recent push by Hill Republicans to force a vote on a conscience clause amendment regarding the Obama administration's decision to mandate contraception coverage in employer health care plans is an example of a fight that would not be happening if Romney were already the nominee.
"If Mitt Romney had been selected, his people probably would have pressured Congressional leaders to make this go away," the aide said. "They would not want this issue that's alienating independent women, and the divisions are empowering social conservatives into making a big issue of this, which is a distraction."
Republican sources, however, said GOP Members would have made a principled stand on religious issues no matter what.
An aide pointed to a presentation given by one GOP Senator at the Conference's retreat last month during which the Member compared all of the plans of the major nominees, highlighting the large similarities and rallying the party around a united cause.
"From a broad brush-stroke perspective, there's a lot of overlap and similarity, what he was trying to show to the caucus — whatever it is, whoever [the nominee] ends up being, we're going to be able to have a unified message on a lot of these jobs issues and spending issues," the aide said.