Republicans in Congress are in a quandary on jobs

Posted Oct. 23, 2011, at 5:47 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 23, 2011, at 8:57 p.m.

STUART, Fla. — Surrounded by a group of eager businessmen in a South Florida boardroom, Republican Rep. Tom Rooney offered no promises or illusions about the jobs bill he unveiled last week.

He didn’t promise a vote. It may or may not find support in the Senate. Rooney, a scion in a famous football family, joked that his legislative strategy included putting Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a fellow Republican, in a headlock.

The important thing, Rooney said, was that he had a plan to address voters’ top concern: jobs. Blaming Washington’s inaction on political stalemates would not impress his constituents.

“I thought it was incumbent on me to at least say to you, ‘We’re working on a plan,’ “ he said.

Rooney’s candid assessment puts a fine point on the political predicament facing GOP lawmakers when it comes to jobs bills. With President Barack Obama touring the country to sell his $447 billion plan, Republicans increasingly are under pressure to present an alternative vision for reviving the economy.

For months, the party has focused on shrinking the government, sparking ugly battles with Democrats over the budget and the debt ceiling. But with job growth back at the top of the congressional agenda, Republican lawmakers have found themselves without a clear strategy to reduce the 9.1 percent national unemployment rate.

To many Republicans, ignoring the issue likely to define the next election is a risky proposition. While political wisdom holds that voters typically unload economic frustration on the president, lawmakers like Rooney have reason to be restless: Congress’ approval rating has been in the tank for months, and tied the all-time low of 13 percent last week, according to a Gallup poll.

“We get a lot of email saying, ‘We want all incumbents out. That includes you. We put you in, we’ll take you out,”’ Rooney said.

And so Rooney, a sophomore congressman under no obligation to lead on economic policy, crafted his own jobs bill to tout to constituents. Senate Republicans did the same earlier this month, acknowledging it was needed to show Americans the proposals they support, rather than just what they oppose.

House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, has revived talk of his chamber’s jobs plan, which is not a bill but an outline of proposals. The House this week will take up a tax measure and a copper mining bill — both billed as jobs legislation.

The push comes as Congress begins a weeks-long political volley over jobs legislation. The Democratic-led Senate has said it will bring up slices of the Obama bill, rewritten to pair spending with a popular tax on people making more than $1 million a year. Republicans, who have sworn to oppose all tax increases, know they are in for series of tough votes.

“President Obama hasn’t closed the sale with the public on his latest stimulus, but one theme does appear to resonate. It may be the result of larger environmental conditions, or he may be moving the needle himself, but Obama’s ‘tax the rich’ mantra is getting traction,” said Steven Law, president of the GOP advocacy group Crossroads GPS, wrote in a memo Friday.

Law recommended specific attacks on the Democrats’ bills and “sharp, focused and sustained” messaging for what is likely to be a long fight. Very few Republicans, or Democrats, are talking about compromising.

Instead, as the parties talk of “common ground,” they’ve remained squarely on their own ideological turf — staking out positions to draw contrasts they may find useful come campaign season.

Republicans have stuck to the position that government spending does not create jobs. Their plans rely largely on easing regulation on business, tax code changes and expanded energy development to create a pro-business environment that they say will spur growth over time.

Democrats have advocated targeted federal spending to nurture the struggling economy, with payroll tax cuts, incentives for companies to hire more workers and money to rebuild public infrastructure such as schools, roads and bridges. They would pay for the plan with a tax on people making more than $1 million a year.

Under the expectation that Congress will reject most of the bills, lawmakers in both parties are preparing to defend themselves.

“All I can do is if I get into a debate with a Democrat on what my plan is, I can at least say, ‘This is my plan,’ and I can’t just say, ‘Well it’s because of gridlock.’

“That’s not offering a solution,” he added.

Such a scenario is all but certain to play out in races across the country next year.

The unemployment problem is as widespread as any of the nation’s ills, affecting cities, suburbs and rural areas in nearly every part of the country, and hitting lawmakers from both parties. Of the 25 metropolitan areas that have seen the biggest jumps in unemployment in recent years, 21 are at least partially represented by Republicans.

Rooney, the grandson of Pittsburgh Steelers founder Art Rooney, is among that group. His district in Florida has seen its economy sink with the bust of the construction and housing industries. The area around Port St. Lucie has seen unemployment jump from 5 percent before the recession to more than 12 percent. Although the district has trended Republican, newly drawn boundaries could mak e it more competitive.

Highways in the area are lined with strip malls dotted with empty storefronts.

“We need to spark the economy somehow. I’m worried about people, both friends and family, that are struggling,” said Dewan Persaud, an information technology instructor and independent voter in Port St. Lucie. “To me, it seems like Congress is just playing politics, just trying to win popularity. I think they need to spend some real effort on the issue.”

Persaud voted for Obama but is uncertain whether he’ll do so again. He has a favorable impression of Rooney and is open to new approaches on job creation: “I know we’ve already spent a lot of money on jobs, on the stimulus; maybe it’s time to try something new.”

Such comments give Republicans reason to hope that voters will put them in charge of leading the economy back from the doldrums next year — if they can convince them the GOP has a plan.

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