The House floor is seeing an uptick in messaging bills as Republicans prepare for a monthlong district work period in a midterm year when they are defending most of the seats in play.
Case in point was a resolution the House adopted Wednesday expressing support for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials and rejecting calls to abolish the agency — a stance some progressive Democrats are pushing.
More than two-thirds of the Democratic Caucus voted “present” to protest what they saw as a GOP political ploy to highlight a divide within their party. But the different views were still apparent as 18 Democrats voted to support the pro-ICE resolution and 34 voted against it.
Republicans will seek to put Democrats on record on another contentious issue Thursday — albeit one that is less divisive in the minority party — with a vote on an anti-carbon tax resolution.
If a 2016 vote on a nearly identical resolution is any guide, the vast majority of Democrats will oppose the resolution. While no Republicans objected to the 2016 version, at least one Republican, Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo, plans to join Democrats in voting “no” this time.
Republicans plan to bring up more measures next week — the last of the House legislative session until after Labor Day — that they can talk about when they go home to face their constituents throughout August.
“There are more votes on addressing some of the problems in our health care system,” House Majority Whip Steve Scalise said. The Louisiana Republican cited plans to move measures to repeal the medical device and health insurance taxes that were enacted as part of the 2010 health care law.
Republicans also seem to be mulling a vote to put Democrats on record on the progressive idea of universal health care, known as “Medicare for All,” but that is not yet confirmed. Like the “Abolish ICE” movement, the Medicare-for-All push has divided Democrats.
Watch: Pence Says Democratic Leaders Must Stop ‘Spurious’ Calls to Abolish ICE
Democrats say the messaging votes seek to obscure the issues Republicans are not addressing such as President Donald Trump’s refusal to stand up to Russia for meddling in U.S. elections and the administration’s zero-tolerance policy on prosecuting illegal border crossings that led to migrant children being separated from their families.
“This resolution is the legislative equivalent of fiddling while Rome is burning,” House Judiciary ranking member Jerrold Nadler of New York said during floor debate on the ICE measure.
GOP on defense
There is no question House Republicans are on defense heading into November. Of the 77 seats in play this cycle, according to Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales, 68 are held by Republicans.
Last week, the House Republican Conference unveiled a new messaging campaign called “Better Off Now,” which seeks to close the loop on the promises it made in 2016 as part of its “A Better Way” agenda.
A website and videos and other messaging tools associated with the Better Off Now campaign tout “a booming economy” after Republicans delivered on plans to cut taxes and roll back regulations.
The message seems to be more defensive than offensive in that it focuses on things Republicans have already done, rather than on what they plan to do if they retain their majority.
But GOP lawmakers say that’s not the case.
“I think the messaging is more, ‘Here’s what we’ve done, and here’s the path we’re going,’” Georgia Rep. Barry Loudermilk said. “If you’re happy with the path we’re going, [support Republicans]. The Democrats have said they’re going to repeal the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act if they get in control, they’re going to expand Obamacare, they’re going to end any discussion of securing our borders.”
Scalise agreed that the point is about drawing a “clear choice” between Republicans and Democrats.
“Going forward we want to keep building on this momentum, but Nancy Pelosi is saying, when she is speaker, she will raise taxes, she will abolish ICE, she will promote a radical agenda that’s going to wreck the wins that we’ve had,” he said.
‘Go on offense’
Nonetheless, some Republicans feel like their majority would be better defended if they spent less time on messaging bills and more time on legislation to address problems the American people face.
“I’ve never been one that believes that you just put forth bills that send a message,” Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said. “I think you go on offense. The only way that November will be good for Republicans is if we run through the finish line and that means being aggressive about rolling back regulations, reducing taxes, making sure that wages go up, making sure that the economy is going well and really making sure that the pre-eminence of the United States is known far and wide.”
As an example, the North Carolina Republican said GOP lawmakers should have spent this week passing legislation to stop foreign interference in the U.S. election cycle. That would have come in the wake of Trump’s mixed signals about whether he believes Russia meddled in the 2016 election and was going to try do so again this year.
New Jersey Rep. Leonard Lance said Republicans have considered important legislation on the floor, but there’s more they need to do. For example, he said they have not yet passed legislation addressing the family separations at the border or young undocumented immigrants who could face deportation if the courts ultimately allow the administration to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
“I’m never a huge fan of messaging bills; I like solving real problems,” said Rep. Tom MacArthur, another New Jersey Republican.
However, MacArthur said there are circumstances such as the Democratic attacks on ICE that merit a response.
“I don’t think this is just pure messaging,” he said. “I think this is an important signal from Congress that we support their work. And, sure, we have work to do on family separation and other things that need to be fixed, but I think we need to support our law enforcement officers in ICE.”
Others agreed that messaging votes can be useful so long as it’s about taking a positive stance, not just attacking the other party.
“If you can draw a line or a link saying the reason we’re doing this is because it’s good for the American people, then I think it’s OK,” Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker of North Carolina said. “But you also have to be careful that it doesn’t become so political that it’s only about strategy.”