GOP: Beyond repealing to reforming

February 17, 2014

The last time the federal government approached its statutory debt limit, Republicans in the House of Representatives fought tooth and nail to attach tough conditions to any increase. On Tuesday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) shepherded a “clean” debt limit increase through that barely raised an eyebrow.

This increase didn’t even set a dollar amount. It simply suspended the debt limit until next March. I can almost hear the conversation: “So, where should we set the new debt limit?” “Ah, you know, whatever!”

One clue as to why House Republicans went along with Boehner’s clean debt limit increase is the vote total. The bill was backed by 193 Democrats and only 28 Republicans. You could say that Democratic lawmakers rescued their Republican counterparts from having to take responsibility for increasing the debt limit.

Yet, after loudly demanding a clean debt limit increase time and again, it’s not as though Democrats could reject the offer without looking like fools. With little fanfare, Boehner steered the congressional GOP away from another destructive crisis, in which bickering Republicans face off against a president who gets to look decisive by insisting that the debt limit be raised.

So does this mean that the GOP “fever” has broken? President Barack Obama, during a June, 2012 campaign appearance, famously told reporters that if he won re-election, “the fever may break” among Republicans. That after steadily refusing to cooperate with him on efforts to expand government’s size and influence in his first term, the president suggested, his re-election might lead Republicans to see the wisdom of moving to the center if not the left.

Obama seemed convinced that his domestic agenda was just a matter of common sense. Opposition to it, he seemed to suggest, was evidence of a fevered mind.

Republicans didn’t see things quite the same way. Throughout 2013, Republicans, if anything, stepped up their opposition to the president’s agenda — in particular to his signature domestic policy initiative, the Affordable Care Act. Congressional Republicans kept trying to outflank each other, to demonstrate who could be most vociferously opposed to the president’s agenda.

The true test of conservatism became tactical. Unless you did everything you possibly could, for example, to defund Obamacare, you weren’t a true believer. Plenty of Republicans rejected this logic. But plenty of Republicans were also wary of getting outflanked on their right, or of holding their noses and voting for something they found distasteful in the extreme — like authorizing a big increase in the federal debt.

This, roughly speaking, is what led to the government shutdown, and last year’s epic fight over increasing the debt limit.

Something has changed since the shutdown, however. The fever Obama had in mind hasn’t broken. To the contrary, the problems plaguing the implementation of Obamacare, and the growing evidence that the law is unworkable, more expensive than advertised, and likely to fall short of its goals, have emboldened the president’s conservative critics.

But you’ll notice that a growing number of Republicans are offering their own policy ideas. Republican Senators Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) recently released a health reform proposal, the Patient CARE Act that would repeal Obamacare and replace it with a more decentralized, market-oriented system. This would cover roughly as many people as Obamacare, according to an analysis from the Center for Health and Economy, a new policy organization started by Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former economic adviser to President George W. Bush.

Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah), has emerged as a leading policy innovator, with new proposals on tax reform, infrastructure, and higher education. Senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and John Thune (R-S.D.), both considered future presidential prospects, have released ambitious proposals on reforming anti-poverty programs and combating long-term unemployment respectively.

In the wake of the Troubled Assets Relief Program, signed by President George W. Bush, and the fiscal stimulus, signed by Obama, grass-roots conservatives were outraged by yawning deficits and what they say is reckless spending by Democrats and establishment Republicans alike. The right became fixated on price tags. A trillion dollars here, a trillion dollars there — the federal government seemed out of control, and there was a desire to rein it in.

The Tea Party movement was, in this first phase, all about price tags. That is why the debt limit took on such resonance. It is also why Republicans saw the 2011 sequestration — a fancy way of saying arbitrary spending caps — as an opportunity. The first priority was to check the growth of the federal Leviathan.

Conservatives still care about spending. Yet there is a new conviction that it’s not enough to just contain spending.

Republicans are also trying to address pressing problems that threaten the fabric of a free society, like the lack of upward mobility from the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. It used to be enough to be an anti-spending warrior. Now you’re expected to find ways to reduce spending while also making American society stronger.

The Burr-Coburn-Hatch bill is an intriguing sign of what’s to come. The senators’ goal is to spend substantially less than Obamacare, while accomplishing more in terms of expanding coverage and promoting innovation.

There is no guarantee that the bill will succeed. But the idea behind it has the potential to unite Tea Party conservatives, who think in terms of price tags, with other reform-minded conservatives who believe that government needs to be smarter as well as smaller.

The clean debt limit increase doesn’t mean that the GOP has embraced the growth of government. Conservatives haven’t signed on to Obama’s domestic agenda. Rather, GOP lawmakers are starting to look ahead, to when they regain the power to set the country’s direction.

They’re realizing  they will have to do more than just cut spending. They will have to reform, repeal, and replace government programs that have failed too many Americans for too long.


PHOTO (TOP): Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) (L) and Senator Richard Burr (R-N.C.) walk to a Republican caucus luncheon at the  Capitol in Washington, January 7, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

PHOTO (INSERT 1): House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) answers a question during his weekly news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 6, 2014. REUTERS/Larry Downing

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) speaking at the Conservative Political Action conference in Washington, February 11, 2011. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Every four and one-half days (4.5 days) the population of the world expands by 1 million people.

The author of this article neglects to mention the one hot-button issue where the GOP can gather up the vast middle class voters: mass immigration.

To become acquainted with the explosive sensitivity of the current phenomenon, simply visit any American news website, liberal or conservative. For example the New York Times, which is typically considered a liberal paper with a liberal readership. Now, spend a few days watching for some article or editorial to appear on the subject of “immigration reform”.

The gist of the article itself will almost always be pro-immigration. (I’ve personally never seen an anti-immigration article in a major news media site.)

But the important thing that the GOP should notice, and is noticing, is the high level of reader comments that such immigration articles invariably ignite.

The reader comments to such articles are both numerous and strongly AGAINST mass immigration. Why? Because immigration is driving down American wage rates and driving up rents. Because immigration on today’s unprecedented scale is quickly destroying the American middle class. It is most certainly a hot-button topic.

If you really want to see some fireworks, read the reader-comments at Yahoo news or BusinessInsider. These typically run perhaps 20 to 1 against mass immigration. Even for the pro-immigration sermons appearing in the very liberal HuffingtonPost, the reader-comments run heavily anti-immigration.

So, authors such as this one, Reihan Salam, seeking to influence the GOP, may debate how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but the true hot-button issue that will bring middle-class America into the voting booth for the GOP, today and for the next 10 years, is the GOP’s desire and ability to stop mass immigration.


Last Sunday, Feb. 9, a plebiscite was held in Switzerland on whether to stop mass immigration, and the Swiss people voted, Yes, stop mass immigration. It’s becoming clear that if such a plebiscite were held in Great Britain, or France, or the USA, or any advanced country, its people would give the same answer as the Swiss.

Mass immigration into the USA, including the H1B Visa program, is quickly destroying the American middle class family.

The GOP can win the American middle class by stamping out mass immigration strongly. All other issues are secondary.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

You’re really getting better at this @AdamSmith. That was very convincing. I wonder why the media wants immigration so much? Or is it their corporate owns and influencers that do? Obviously the majority of the people do not.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

I think the author maybe on the right track with the Republicans. But I think they will have a long way to go to gain any trust. I am staunchly independent and would have trouble believing anything the republicans offer is good for the people. I believe they truly and only represent corporate America.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

I am definitely against mass immigration… but let me clarify my opposition.

Americans need to protect middle class jobs, and that includes construction, carpentry, and jobs that require reasonable skill and experience and some degree of training BEFORE becoming productive in that job. The STEM-related jobs definitely should be kept mainly for Americans. The H1B program should be tightly controlled and used ONLY when there is documented evidence that America is “losing out” because of an inadequate supply of educated talent.

However, there is another class of jobs that demands hard work, some degree of proficiency, and a committment by the worker to perform well to keep that job. I urge all responsible anti-immigration thinking people to recognize this class of the job market by reading the Senate Floor presentation by Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) on the subject, which offers considerable insight and possible solutions to this vexing issue. Go to…
and search out her presentation (Statement of Senator Dianne Feinstein,
Statement in Support of S. 744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act)… it will open your view about specific aspects of this complex issue that we need to address in earnest… and it WILL benefit America.

Posted by Mikon | Report as abusive

The GOPers have never typically worked a middleclass job. Look at the soft guy in the picture (either one) they both have small soft hands that have never labored. The GOPers and particularly the leaders have never labored and they refuse to listen to those that have. Their real problem is their meanness. They are just mean. Our laws were written to judge and punish the sinners because the christians and their politicians believe it is necessary to judge and punish those they think have sinned. That’s why we imprison more people that any other nation. Because our laws are meant to judge and punish those that don’t agree with the national christian organizations, the sinners.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

By proposing an ACA light the GOP have now rejoined the portion of the government that is willing to govern?
Fool me once………

Posted by brownland | Report as abusive

I think there are a lot of hard working Republicans, with work-worn hands. I know a bunch myself. If they now make more money than some, they started at the bottom and worked hard.

I think the article is well written and makes some good points. What surprised me is that it got published at Reuters at all, although Reuters is a bit better than most of the news organizations in terms of bias.

Posted by stevedebi | Report as abusive

Reihan wrote: “It used to be enough to be an anti-spending warrior. Now you’re expected to find ways to reduce spending while also making American society stronger.”

Ummm, weren’t Republicans supposed to be doing that all along? When did “making American society stronger” become a new concept to Republicans?

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive