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GOP testing more-positive waters

Mar 3, 2014 - By Carl Leubsdorf

Last summer, House Speaker John Boehner sought to justify the minimal, often negative Republican congressional record.

"We should not be judged by how many new laws we create," he said during an oft-quoted appearance on CBS's "Face the Nation." "We ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal."

These days, Boehner is singing a different tune.

"It's important that we show the American people we're not just the opposition party, we're actually the alternative party," the speaker told fellow House Republicans during their recent retreat.

He's not the only one. In the most substantive of the four GOP responses to President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah said the tea party must be more than a naysayer.

"If all we do is protest, our Boston Tea Party moment will occupy little more than a footnote in history," he said.

It's unclear if this represents a belated reaction to the negative fallout Republicans felt after shutting down the government last fall, a recognition that it's harder to repeal complex laws like the Affordable Care Act than to promise it, or a realization that continued negativism won't necessarily help the GOP regain the Senate in 2014 and the presidency in 2016.

It's also unclear if this is a real change or merely a test of the pre-election waters to make the GOP sound less negative.

To be sure, the change in tone by Republican leaders has been accompanied by some positive actions. House leaders issued a set of GOP principles that could spur long-stalled action on the immigration bill.

Three Republican senators proposed alternatives to aspects of the health-care law that go beyond the year-long House Republican effort to repeal or cripple Obama's signature proposal. And conservative lawmakers, Lee noted, are pushing "positive, innovative ideas" in areas including poverty, criminal justice, transportation and job training.

On immigration, the GOP principles could bring real progress because, while stressing border enforcement comes first, they could lead to citizenship for younger aliens and some form of legal status for the rest.

Indeed, no sooner had the GOP issued them than Obama seemed to modify his previous insistence that immigration legislation include a path to citizenship for all 11 million estimated illegal aliens in the United States.

"The fact that they're for something, I think, is progress," the president acknowledged in an interview with CNN's Jake Tapper. "If the speaker proposes something that says right away, folks aren't being deported, families aren't being separated, we're able to attract top young students to provide the skills or start businesses here, and then there's a regular process of citizenship, I'm not sure how wide the divide ends up being" between them and him.

Ultimately, this will depend on the specific language in the legislation Republicans are drafting and whether it can survive opposition from party conservatives.

Meanwhile, Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, and Orrin Hatch of Utah proposed an alternative health-care bill, titled The Patient Choice, Affordability, Responsibility and Empowerment (CARE) Act. It would make consumers responsible for more of their medical bills, helped by health savings accounts using pre-tax dollars that could pay both insurance premiums and health-care costs.

"In my opinion, Obamacare is on borrowed time," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor declared a few days ago.

But the senators' proposal would maintain the Affordable Care Act's provisions allowing adult children to stay on their parents' plans until age 26 and its ban on limiting lifetime insurance benefits.

And a section ostensibly repealing the Obama law is less meaningful than it sounds, analyst Michael Millenson wrote. In an article titled "In a Footnote, GOP Gives Up Total Obamacare Repeal," he explained the footnote exempts "the changes to Medicare," which would spare much of the law.

Besides, Millenson wrote, Obama can block repeal as long as he is president, adding that "even with a new president and Congress in 2017, many of the proposed changes would be very difficult to accomplish with a law that's been in effect for years."

Obamacare is the law of the land, proposed by the two-term elected president, passed by both house of Congress, and upheld under Supreme Court review. A Republican decision to stop trying to repeal it would be a true sign they're becoming more positive.

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Editor's note: Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via e-mail at: carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com.

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