By Michael Barone
The House Republicans, in serious trouble with public opinion as they blinked facing the “fiscal cliff” over New Year’s, seem suddenly to be playing a more successful game — or, rather, games, an inside game and an outside game.
The inside game can be described by the Washington phrase “regular order.” What that means in ordinary American English is that you proceed according to the rules.
Bills are written in subcommittee and committee and then go to the floor. When the House and Senate pass different versions — likely when Republicans control the House and Democrats have a majority in the Senate — the two are taken to conference committee to be reconciled.
Then both houses vote on the conference committee report. If it is approved, the president can sign or veto it.
Note the lack of negotiations between the White House and congressional leaders. Speaker John Boehner decided they’re useless after the failure of his grand bargain talks with Barack Obama.
Under regular order, House Republicans had little leverage when the fiscal cliff loomed on New Year’s Day. Taxes were to go up by $4.5 trillion if the House didn’t act. So Republicans accepted higher rates on those earning more than $400,000.
Now Republicans have the leverage. The budget sequester to automatically take effect March 1 would cut spending by $1 trillion. Republicans don’t like the $500 billion defense spending cuts, but they can stomach them.
Obama took to the teleprompter yesterday afternoon to call for short-term spending cuts and revenue increases through elimination of deductions. Boehner was willing to consider the latter as part of a grand bargain that included tax rate cuts and entitlement reform.
But if the net effect is revenue increases, Republicans aren’t interested. For them, this would be “laughable — they have zero reason to do it,” as my Washington Examiner colleague Philip Klein has written.
You may have noticed that everything in this column so far is Washington talk — fiscal cliff, sequester, regular order. It’s not language you hear ordinary Americans speaking in everyday life.
Which leads to the House Republicans’ outside game, advanced by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a speech Tuesday afternoon at the American Enterprise Institute, where I’m a resident fellow.
It was scheduled well in advance and, interestingly, Obama chose the same hour to speak before the cameras. He did the same thing once before, in May 2009, when former Vice President Cheney spoke at AEI on CIA interrogation techniques.
Cantor titled his remarks “Making Life Work,” and they were clearly aimed at Main Street.
He spoke not of educational block grants but of having federal education “follow children” to schools their parents choose.
In a move reminiscent of presidents’ State of the Union messages since 1982, he brought along Joseph Kelley, who sent his son, Rashawn, and his three daughters to private schools with money from a District of Columbia voucher program the Obama administration has tried to shut down.
He criticized the Obamacare tax on medical devices by bringing a Baltimore nurse who worked to develop replacement discs for patients with back pain and then needed one herself. She was wearing her cervical collar.
He brought 12-year-old Katie, from Richmond, who has been treated for cancer almost all her life, to illustrate Republican support for funding basic medical research.
Addressing immigration, he brought Fiona Zhou, a systems engineering graduate student whose chances to remain in the United States would improve if, as the House voted last year, more immigration slots were opened for foreigners with advance science, technology and engineering degrees.
He endorsed the Dream Act, legal residence and citizenship for illegal immigrants brought here as children. He praised the bipartisan work on a bill including border security, employment verification and guest worker programs.
All this was a contrast with Cantor’s usual penchant to speak in Washington talk and with the tendency of many Republicans, notably Mitt Romney, to speak in abstractions like free enterprise and government regulation rather than in words that describe the experiences of ordinary Americans.
Yes, there’s a certain amount of theater and contrivance to this. But that’s often true in politics. There was sophisticated argumentation in the Lincoln-Douglas debates. But the two candidates also put on a show.
It’s not clear how successful the House Republicans’ outside game will be. But for those on their side, it’s encouraging that they’re trying to play.
Michael Barone senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute