Republicans didn’t offer an overarching agenda or platform to voters during the 2014 midterm elections and party leaders were careful to avoid sweeping policy declarations when they fanned out across the morning T.V. talk shows to celebrate their victory on Wednesday. Instead, they promised to compromise with the president.
“It’s really important that our leaders in the legislature now set-up real achievable goals that are simple, that we can define for the American people,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus explained on MSNBC’s Morning Joe when asked how the party would position itself for the 2016 presidential election. Priebus stressed that Congressional Republicans must focus on “achievable things, work with the president, get those things done, repeat and repeat and repeat.”
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS), the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, who oversaw the party pick-up as many as nine seats in the Senate to win the majority, was similarly cautious. “I think the mandate is about let’s see some accomplishments and I think that’s what you saw candidates across the country do, roll up our sleeves, let’s see what we can do together, and let’s demonstrate to the American people that we can actually work to accomplish for the good of the country,” he told MSNBC. Even Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the presumptive majority leader of the Senate in January, explained in his victory speech on Tuesday night that divided government “doesn’t mean we have to be in perpetual conflict.”
So what would a more harmonious Congress actually look like?
Republicans have laid out goals that do have bipartisan support and could conceivably be signed into law by President Barack Obama. For instance, both parties have expressed support for tweaking aspects of the Affordable Care Act by repealing the law’s medical device tax, an independent board tasked with controlling health care costs, and modifying or outright eliminating the law’s employer responsibility provision — a measure the administration itself has delayed twice and some prominent progressives have walked away from.
Republicans promised to force approval of the Keystone XL pipeline — a project 16 senate Democrats endorsed when the body voted on a non-biding resolution in March of 2013 — and have pledged to pass a budget in both chambers. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) — the likely chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee — has promised to tackle tax reform (a project he told Bloomberg on Tuesday night would ideally attract 60 votes in the Senate) and insisted that Republicans still plan to advance immigration reform — on a step-by-step basis that begins with border security. Obama endorsed such a process last year.
Other issues with bipartisan support include an insistence that the administration submit any deal to stop Iran from developing a nuclear program to Congress and approving fast-track authority for trade deals with the European Union and nations in Asia. Obama has asked the Senate for special authority that would allow Congress an up-or-down vote on the issue, but has been stymied by Democrats who believe it would cost jobs. The administration, and many Republicans, argue that the compacts would create American jobs by expanding U.S. exports.
Of course the promise of compromise is only possible if GOP leadership doesn’t fall victim to the pull of 2016 politics and the wishes of the chamber’s presidential hopefuls — Marco Rubio (FL), Rand Paul (KY), Ted Cruz (TX) — to pursue partisan policies designed to appeal to the party’s conservative base. The party largely ignored its promises to appeal to hispanic voters and African Americans in the days following Obama’s re-election in 2012 and instead shutdown the government and turned its back on immigration reform.
Even before the dust of the election settled on Tuesday night, some Republicans hinted that its talk of compromise was just a brief flirtation. Appearing on CNN just hours after the polls closed, Cruz refused to say whether he would vote for McConnell to become the Senate majority leader, hinting at a campaign for an even more conservative leader. Ryan, a potential presidential contender in his own right, laid out a bipartisan governing agenda before adopting a more confrontational, political tone.
“If there are certain issues we just see so opposite on, then we should define ourselves with our actions by passing bills that he may very well veto,” he told Bloomberg on Tuesday night. “If we just have differences of opinions but we want to show the country what we would do if we could if we had the presidency, what those policies would look like, we should do those too.”