Armed with worrisome poll data and seeking to maintain the legislative upper hand, Congressional Republicans who have spent the balance of the year pouring buckets of criticism on the Obama administration are shifting to a more restrained approach as they ponder how to respond to the president’s jobs plan.
Back from a summer break in their districts — where they faced constituents howling about Washington bickering and intransigence — Republicans on Friday left the door open to several elements of the president’s $447 billion jobs package of tax cuts and spending programs, even those that just five weeks ago were met with vehement opposition.
The abrupt change in tone and substance after months of searing budget fights that turned off a watching public suggested that Republicans on Capitol Hill were anxious about entering the 2012 races with a reputation more for confrontation than compromise.
“People expect results, and they’re very frustrated that they are not seeing that coming out of Washington,” Representative Charles Boustany Jr., Republican of Louisiana, said in an interview. “That implies that we have to have some compromise, some area where we agree that we’re going to move things forward for the better.”
Speaker John A. Boehner and Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia are also taking a more conciliatory approach than in previous fiscal battles, when both men essentially declared war on the administration’s policies. “We are going to work together,” Mr. Cantor said, adding, “I think it’s time to build consensus here.”
On Friday, the two leaders sent an exceedingly polite letter to Mr. Obama asking that he send any bills containing his jobs plans to the Congressional Budget Office so that their costs can be evaluated. “It is our desire to work together to find common ground between your ideas and ours,” the letter read, in a significant switch from a few weeks ago, when Mr. Cantor, in an interview on The Wall Street Journal’s Web site, said Mr. Obama was “over his head as to what to do about the economy.”
Of course, this is not exactly a loving courtship; it is more like two families joined at a wedding that both would rather not attend. Republicans, whose views on Mr. Obama’s plans are still being formulated, may well be seeking to tamp down criticism that they are shrill or contributing to stagnant employment, with many of their members facing re-election in Democratic strongholds. The dynamic may mirror that of the House under Newt Gingrich in 1996; after a prolonged fight with President Bill Clinton about the budget, long-stalled domestic legislation ultimately came to bipartisan fruition.
On Thursday and Friday, after Mr. Obama’s speech, Republicans cited areas where they thought there could be agreement. Many Republicans, like Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, now say they are open to the idea of a payroll tax cut, especially one extended to small businesses, and pointed to the three free trade bills as worthy of support.
“I think it was admirable, and I appreciate that he spoke the truth about entitlements,” said Representative Michael G. Grimm of New York, referring to Mr. Obama’s remarks concerning his determination to adjust Medicare. (Last month, as the chosen speaker for the Republican weekly address, Mr. Grimm said Mr. Obama needed to “wake up to reality, abandon his failed policies and join Republicans in the hard work needed to turn our country around and create jobs.”)
In another sign of Republican desire to avoid partisan collision, the House and Senate on Friday reached a deal on a bill to extend the operating authority of the Federal Aviation Administration through the end of January 2012 and highway and transit aid programs through the end of March. Representative John L. Mica, Republican of Florida, said that his party would not include spending cuts or contentious policy provisions in the bill and that Democrats, too, had made concessions.
Whether the current tone is largely a tactic or could produce some legislative agreement remains to be seen as the president and his Congressional opponents have weeks to hash out the jobs legislation as well as other contentious issues on the calendar.
Indeed, Republicans are not backing down from their own fiscal agenda, which will be heavy this month in deregulation bills and curbs on unions. Many elements of Mr. Obama’s plan are known irritants to Republicans, in spite of the president’s claim to the contrary, including the $4,000 tax credit to employers for hiring long-term unemployed workers or tax credits for new hires.
Some House Republicans suggest that dismantling pieces of the administration’s regulatory regime could be part of a trade-off with the administration for advancing some of the president’s jobs agenda, though members insist that they have not seen enough details to know where potential compromise could be found. “I don’t think anyone is dismissing the president’s ideas,” Representative Candice S. Miller of Michigan said. “It’s just, ‘Where are the details?’ ”
Further, to many Republican members, policies already embraced by their party are the only thing on Mr. Obama’s wish list they are interested in, which means that much of his plan will be seriously tested in both chambers. “Our goal should not be to find middle ground,” said Representative Trent Franks of Arizona, “but true common ground.”
The new era of propitiation was conceived by the House Republican leadership, a group that other members, particularly those belonging to the conservative Republican Study Committee, have been known to buck.
Representative Pete Sessions of Texas, who heads the organization to re-elect Republican House members, derided the payroll tax cut on Friday as a “horrible idea,” and said, “I respect our leaders, but I found what the president said to be out of balance.” His organization, the National Republican Congressional Committee, has already distributed talking points to Republican candidates, telling them to blame the president for all manner of the nation’s woes.
And illustrating something of disconnect between Republican leaders and their current field of White House hopefuls, Republican presidential candidates had no truck for Mr. Obama’s plan.
Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, said in a statement that it “is guided by his mistaken belief that we can spend our way to prosperity.” Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, called the plan “960 days late” in a campaign video.
Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota did not attend Mr. Obama’s speech, but immediately responded. “Every time the president speaks,” she said, “his policies have cost the American people jobs and future prosperity.”
Mrs. Bachmann will not find a partner in pique with a fellow Republican from Minnesota, Representative Chip Cravaack, who is seeking re-election in a traditionally Democratic district. “I hope that we start working together more and find solutions to problems,” he said Friday. “I am willing to compromise on anything that provides a solution.”