- Conservatives fear Boehner will play "prevent defense" ahead of midterms
- They feel that presenting a contrast with Democrats is a winning strategy
- Conservatives have used their numbers and influence to stymie Boehner on policy
House conservatives are putting House Speaker John Boehner on notice: The 2014 agenda needs to be about more than railing on the President and the failures of Obamacare.
They say it's time to lay out a bold GOP vision and hold votes on a series of issues to show a contrast with Democrats.
"Republicans right now think that all we have to do is talk about how bad the Obama economy is and how bad Obamacare is and we're going to win in 2014," Idaho GOP Rep. Raul Labrador told reporters at a forum of House conservatives on Capitol Hill this week.
Labrador said he believes this strategy is what prevented Republicans from winning the White House in 2012 and predicted if the party adopts the same game plan this year it won't take back the Senate or win the White House in 2016.
Louisiana Republican Rep. Steve Scalise, who heads a group of more than 170 conservatives called the Republican Study Committee, also said he's worried top GOP leaders don't have a more proactive agenda ahead of the midterm elections.
"There's some people that think that they might want to play prevent defense this year and sit back," Scalise said.
Since Republicans took control of the House in 2011, those on the right have wielded their growing numbers and influence to stymie Boehner's plans on major policy debates.
As Republicans head to the eastern shore of Maryland for a closed-door retreat later this month to chart strategy, Wyoming GOP Rep. Cynthia Lummis said. "This is no time to duck in a foxhole. This is the time for Republicans to lead."
Boehner has said he believes the 2014 election will hinge on jobs and the problems with Obamacare. House Republican leaders are again expected to push similar versions of the jobs bill they pushed in 2013 to keep the focus on the economy, along with some more bills tweaking Obamacare, according to GOP aides.
But Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, a tea party favorite who is retiring this fall, said, "That's not enough," and House Republicans need to give more concrete answers for what they'll do for working-class Americans.
"You can chew gum and walk at the same time," Bachmann said.
Asked about conservatives' demands for votes on a host of issues, Boehner agreed in principle, saying at his weekly session with reporters, "It's important for us as a -- as a party, especially in an election year, to tell people what you're for."
Perhaps in response to growing calls from his own members, the speaker committed that House Republicans would come forward this year with their own proposal to replace Obamacare. But he didn't guarantee a vote on it before the election.
The refrain "repeal and replace" was a central GOP message right after the President signed the health care law in 2010. Although there have been more than 40 votes to roll back the entire law or parts of it, there has been no vote on a plan to take its place.
But what do conservatives want?
Even those Republicans demanding a "bold vision" from their leaders aren't articulating what that means. Several House conservatives admit there are splits about what should be included on the 2014 to-do list, and that divide could take a while to sort out.
"This is clearly going to be an internal struggle of the Republican party: Are we going to just be the party that says 'hey the other side is worse' or are we going to show why our side is actually better for the American people or the public?" Labrador asked.
He and other conservatives are worried that the national party has become too closely aligned with big business, and instead should be targeting its agenda and message at small businesses and individuals.
In addition to the party laying out its own health care plan, Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan outlined several areas he said voters want to see Congress tackle this year. He held up tax reform that helps promote new jobs as a must-do priority, something Republicans put on their agenda for every new congressional session.
Perhaps as a response to the Democrats' laser focus this year on income inequality issues, Jordan said the GOP should focus on policies aimed at lower-income Americans, suggesting welfare reform should be revisited. He also said Americans want Congress to deal with the worries people have about privacy protections.
"These are four things that help every single family in this country," Jordan said, and insisted leaders should schedule votes on bills covering all those conservative priorities.
One issue that is guaranteed to set up a clash between conservatives and Boehner is immigration reform. The speaker is expected to release a set of principles on immigration reform later this month. He has said repeatedly it's important for Congress to fix the broken system, including addressing what to do about the 11 million undocumented workers in the United States.
Boehner and other top House GOP leaders are adamant they won't take up anything resembling the comprehensive legislation the Senate passed last year. But even moving the piecemeal bills Boehner has said he supports will be politically messy, because a majority of his own members are reluctant to sign off on any measure that grants eventual citizenship.
GOP Rep. Steve King of Iowa, a longtime opponent of any measure granting legal status to undocumented workers in the United States, doesn't think an immigration debate does anything but help Democrats. "Every day that we discuss immigration, that helps Barack Obama change the topic from Obamacare."
The first fight is the debt ceiling.
A big test for Boehner's ability to assuage conservatives comes soon: House Republicans need to decide how they will approach the debate over the debt limit. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said the nation's borrowing authority will run out at the end of February.
Last fall's government shutdown was a public display of the fight between conservatives who demanded any spending bill defund Obamacare and establishment Republicans who worried it was a no-win situation. But that episode did have a silver lining for Boehner, who warned the standoff over Obamacare would backfire. It served as a teachable moment for conservatives about the limits of what they can demand in a divided government.
Scalise said he wants to address the long-term debt as part of the debt debate, but he's not sure yet what Republicans should negotiate in return for supporting another increase in the debt ceiling. But he didn't seem to think that debate was the best place to take another stand on Obamacare.
"It has to be something achievable and we ought to start with that. It ought to be something we can rally the country around and ultimately sign into law that addresses the problem," Scalise said.
How Boehner handles the delicate relationship with conservatives will be key to the prospects for his 2014 legislative agenda. But the speaker is also the top GOP leader in Washington of a party still struggling to regroup after losses at the national level in 2012, so the direction he takes will also have an impact on the political message in this fall's midterm elections.