Senate GOP Is Pushing a Message

Republican Leaders Spy Opening on Floor

Posted April 27, 2009 at 6:30pm

Senate Republicans are trying to use a relatively sparse floor schedule to their advantage, talking up energy and national security while the chamber labors through issues such as executive branch nominations, a public lands measure and the fraud protection bill expected to be wrapped up this week.

With few exceptions, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has not stacked the floor’s schedule with top-tier issues since the 111th Congress passed stimulus legislation in February.

That decision has given Republicans, who continue to struggle in finding their political footing following last year’s election, the ability to largely set their own message agenda rather than remain in a reactive posture.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said the Senate’s agenda has allowed Republicans to set their own agenda — and to make long-term, concerted message pushes on key issues. The current floor schedule “allows us to extend our messaging on other things … [and] go into overtime on stimulus and the budget and the other things we’re on offense on,— Thune said.

Reid’s scheduling “certainly gives us the ability to talk about a range of issues, and not just what’s on the floor,— a senior GOP leadership aide said, adding that “we’ve been able to be much more proactive than just responding— to what Democrats and the Obama administration are doing.

After the Senate spent the first week of March on the omnibus spending bill, the rest of the month was spent almost entirely on nominations, D.C. voting rights and the lands bill. Republicans used that as an opportunity to “road test our message— on the budget, the leadership aide said.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) spent the month refining their budget message — and building confidence about their efforts among their GOP colleagues.

That appeared to pay off when the entire Republican Conference — and two Democrats — voted against the budget resolution.

“We talked about the budget for four weeks before it was even considered,— the aide said.

McConnell has also spent months hammering on the Obama administration over the president’s decision to shutter the prison facility at Guantánamo Bay, which has moved to the forefront recently as the White House released documents detailing harsh interrogation techniques used at the prison.

Republicans also pointed to recent speeches given by Alexander and McConnell laying out broad GOP policy positions rather than specific responses to administration or Senate Democratic proposals.

Alexander gave the GOP’s radio response on Saturday, and while the speech broke no new political or policy ground, it did focus on energy issues — and the resurrection of an energy conservation and development message Republicans used last summer.

Republicans want to “talk about [energy] not just when gas is $4 a gallon, if for nothing else than to have some credibility on the issue— with voters, a GOP aide explained.

During his opening floor statement Monday — when both leaders typically set the stage for their parties’ messaging efforts around that week’s looming floor debates — McConnell instead delivered a broad critique of Obama’s foreign policy, hitting the administration not just on Guantánamo Bay and the torture memos but also his outreach to Iran and Cuba.

Republicans this week are expected to make a concerted push on foreign policy, with McConnell, Alexander, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and others expected to use floor speeches to criticize Democrats while also laying out broad-brush strokes on the GOP’s policy proposals.

Republicans acknowledge their efforts to rebrand their party will likely take several years, but they said they hope to use the breathing room Reid’s floor schedule has given them to build some of the basic foundations for a recovery.

Pushing forward on their own agenda will help Republicans “establish not only consistent messaging but also confidence in the messaging,— the leadership aide said.