The “Fast and Furious” investigation knocked House Republicans off their jobs message last week, and a series of detours ensures the party will have trouble re- centering its election-year economic message for at least one more week.
Following on the heels of Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa’s (R-Calif.) panel finding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress over the investigation into the gun-walking operation, the House could find itself engulfed in debate and a floor vote on the contempt resolution, guaranteeing a televised political spectacle.
The Supreme Court, meanwhile, is expected to rule on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement. No matter the decision, the long-awaited answer from the court is sure to consume Members’ time.
Mix those two explosive issues with a frenetic workload as both chambers try to reach deals on transportation reauthorization legislation and student loan interest rates, and it’s not difficult to see why Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has expressed concern that Republicans’ message on the economy could get lost and that the contempt vote might not be the wisest political move.
Other court decisions might prove to be a big deal on the messaging front as well and could distract from the GOP’s effort to keep Obama’s handling of the economy at the forefront.
The constitutionality of Arizona’s immigration law will be decided and the equally contentious Citizens United campaign finance ruling gets a renewed focus in a Montana-based case that seeks to allow tougher state campaign finance laws. And the House will attempt to consider two appropriations bills as well.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor conceded that the week’s schedule is packed. And while some agenda items are not jobs-related, he said the long-term message for Republicans is.
“It’s not that we can’t take care of the business here. There are things that need to be addressed,” the Virginia Republican said. “The primary focus and what we are trying to do is get Democrats to work with us in creating a better environment for jobs.”
Health care can reasonably be tied back to the economy, and Republicans have sent memos and briefed Members, urging them to focus on the economics of the issue.
Boehner sent a memo to House Republicans on Thursday asking them not to “spike the ball” if the law, or part of it, is struck down.
“We will not celebrate at a time when millions of our fellow Americans remain out of work, the national debt has exceeded the size of our nation’s economy, health costs continue to rise and small businesses are struggling to hire,” the note said. “Obamacare has contributed to all of these problems.”
That same day, Boehner told radio host Laura Ingraham that although the Holder contempt resolution is a necessary part of Congress’ oversight responsibilities, “politically this may not be the smartest thing to do.”
Nevertheless, the health ruling and the contempt resolution present a test for leadership in preventing its Members from getting carried away, one GOP operative noted.
GOP aides, however, argue that even though the Fast and Furious fight does not fit neatly into the jobs narrative, it is a net win for the party.
They feel it invigorates the Republican base without alienating independents and draws the Obama administration into a hand-to-hand fight with an unpopular Congress, a body they freely admit drags down the president’s approval rating by mere association.
While the contempt fight was lighting up headlines last week, the House passed a package of energy bills that leadership hyped as a jobs initiative that would spur energy production by stripping regulations.
And next month, Cantor said the House will vote on extending the Bush-era tax cuts.
“While perhaps some in the White House and others want to talk about other things ... we’re going to be talking about the repeal of regulations, cutting the red tape that’s stopping the job creation, and we’re going to make sure that the message that we send is that we’d like the president and the Democrats to join us in making sure taxes don’t go up on anybody,” Cantor said.
For now, Democrats are content to allow Republicans to stay away from economic issues. Asked whether they would try to throw Republicans off message, one Democratic leadership aide said, “They’re doing it themselves, they don’t need our help.”
Democrats will continue to hammer their counterparts on the transportation bill. Aides said that isolates House Republicans who remain opposed to taking up the Senate-passed version of the highway bill.
Immigration looks to return to the fore with the court’s decision on Arizona’s law. Obama flummoxed Republicans earlier this month by announcing an executive action to stop deporting some young immigrants who have been in the country for a long time.
Though immigration issues are not overtly about jobs, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said some believe they are.
“There is an undercurrent out there about are we losing American jobs to people who aren’t here legally,” he said.
Long-term, though, he said Republican have their eye on the ball.
“There’s always a wide buffet of issues out there, but the one [Americans] care most about is jobs and the economy,” he said. “So this will be something they’ll be interested in, they’ll focus on for a period of time, and depending on how these decisions come out, it’ll determine how long they’re focused, but the core issue will always remain the economy and jobs.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.