Cantor Pushes the GOP to Spell Out Its Agenda

By Gerald F. Seib

Majority Leader Says Republicans Need to Act More Like the Alternative Party Than the Opposition

Rep. Eric Cantor wants Republicans to stop thinking of themselves as simply the opposition party, and to start acting more like the alternative party.

Such a distinction is important, but difficult to realize. As is often the case when a party doesn’t occupy the White House, Republicans have become far more comfortable simply being against what President Barack Obama is for, rather than doing the tougher work of agreeing on precisely what they would do differently.

To some in the party’s more conservative quarters, in fact, even calls for targeted government action are reflexively being read as unwanted calls for big-government action, and an unnecessary distraction from attacks on the health law championed by the president. But in an election year in which Republicans are asking voters to give them full control of Congress, the need to be for something and not simply against lots of things becomes crucial.

“Our members are going to get very excited if we can provide alternatives, not just be a party that’s against whatever the president is for,” Mr. Cantor, the House majority leader, said in an interview. “It doesn’t mean we’re not going to prosecute the case against the president’s agenda in the form of a public debate.”

This quest has taken the form of a series of speeches and writings in recent weeks in which Mr. Cantor has sought to define what Republicans—at least House Republicans—ought to stand for. The effort started a year ago, when he delivered a speech at the American Enterprise Institute that laid out arguments for, among other things, charter schools and school choice, and a federal law that would enable working parents to convert overtime into comp time.

Last month, at a retreat of House Republicans, Mr. Cantor presented a broad agenda that he described as “An America That Works.” In it, he urged Republicans to embrace changes in federal job-training programs, while also pushing more predictable ideas for easing regulations on energy and manufacturing, and tax reductions on the middle class. He again made a push for more charter schools but also urged the GOP to generate ideas for reducing the cost of college education.

And then, this month, he gave a speech at the Virginia Military Institute on national-security issues in which he called for more aid for Syria’s rebels, more economic sanctions on Iran, a reversal of some planned defense-spending cuts and completion of a free-trade pact in Asia.

In some ways, though, the question hanging over all this is the giant, complicated question of health care. Like virtually every Republican in sight, Mr. Cantor has called for repealing the Affordable Care Act

But the harder part for Republicans is spelling out how they would replace it.

“Honestly, I think Obamacare is on borrowed time,” Mr. Cantor says. “We may have an opportunity for an alternative to be put in place.” But there isn’t agreement among congressional Republicans on whether to participate in attempts to modify the law or on any single alternative to take its place.

House Republicans presented a plan back in 2009 that would allow insurance companies to sell policies across state lines and expand use of state-based high-risk insurance pools to help people with pre-existing conditions find insurance. More recently, the conservative House Republican Study Committee offered its own plan, using tax deductions to help individuals buy health insurance, and last month three Republican senators released their own. All have similarities but aren’t identical. Mr. Cantor says simply: “Our conference is working on that.”

His bigger problem is that, to get to this kind of agenda, House Republican leaders have been trying to move past the arguments about spending and debt that have left Congress tied in knots for the last two years and sent perceptions of Republican leadership sliding downward.

Yet many in the party’s tea-party and conservative wings seem more interested in remaining focused on opposition. Look at the website of Heritage Action, the new political-action arm of the Heritage Foundation think tank, and you get a visual image of this impulse.

On the group’s list of recommended votes on key congressional issues, the first seven items are all calls for votes against something. The group urged ‘no’ votes on raising the debt ceiling, on passing the farm bill, on overhauling flood insurance, on a new federal spending plan, on extending unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed, on a new budget outline and on the confirmation of Janet Yellen as chairwoman of the Federal Reserve.

Mr. Cantor clearly doesn’t want that to be the totality of the GOP message: “It’s really important to us to assert conservative solutions, because so many people are hurting.”

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