In Republican Congress, two divergent strategies at work

High-energy Republican House runs up against methodical, slow-paced Senate

After winning control of the Senate and boosting their numbers in the House last fall, Republicans devised a moniker for their dual majorities that could pass for a new C-SPAN reality show: "America's New Congress."

Branding is one thing, but governing is another, as the party has discovered very quickly in the new year.

And so Senate Republicans have joined their House counterparts for a rare joint retreat in this chocolate-producing outpost with the goal of smoothing internal differences that threaten to disrupt a strategy to counter President Obama in the next two years.

That starts with the two most senior Republicans: House Speaker John A. Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who by personality and necessity are taking different approaches to bring their rank-and-file along on issues including immigration, the economy and healthcare.

After the first full week of Republican control of Congress, the diverging paths are clear: While the House quickly passed a tweak to the Affordable Care Act, approval of the Keystone XL pipeline and a confrontational Homeland Security funding package that includes provisions to block Obama's immigration plan, McConnell was presenting an experiment in "regular order" — congressional speak for the slow grind of nudging a bill, in this case about Keystone, through often cumbersome procedural hurdles.

Whether the frenetic House will have patience for the methodical Senate is one question. Whether conservatives will tolerate the consensus approach McConnell needs to overcome a Democratic filibuster in the Senate is another.

What emerged Thursday was a commitment to approve a GOP budget in the first 100 days of the new Congress — an ambitious if unsurprising starting point, given that doing so is a legal requirement.

"At the end of the 100 days, I'd like to have our budget done," said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield. "Getting the budget done is the start of everything else."

Republican leaders also mentioned other top to-do-list items. The Senate wants to finish its work on Keystone and begin considering an Iran sanctions package. The House, meanwhile, will proceed with a crush of deregulation bills.

But trying to bring the budget into balance within 10 years remains on top.

In 2014, Republicans campaigned as much against then-Majority Leader Harry Reid as they did against Obama, accusing the Nevada Democrat of almost single-handedly blocking Republican ideas from reaching the president's desk.

Expectations are now high that with McConnell in charge and a 54-seat Republican majority in the Senate, those obstacles will be lifted.

But McConnell is warning his House colleagues that a simple change in leadership may not be enough.

At one closed session Thursday with members of both the House and Senate, McConnell portrayed the challenge he faces in quantitative terms, explaining that reaching a filibuster-proof 60 votes in the Senate is almost like needing a supermajority in the House of 260 votes, rather than a simple majority of 218.

"We have a much easier, swifter process in the House, but in the Senate it's much more difficult," Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said of the discussion. Asked whether his conservative House colleagues were receptive to McConnell's explanations, Chaffetz answered, "Of course not."

"Patience is not in our vocabulary. At least it shouldn't be," he said. "The leadership is going to have to figure out how to balance that. But we should not slow down because the Senate can't keep up."

At a rare joint news conference here with McConnell, Boehner downplayed any inter-cameral tension.

"The House is going to work its will. The Senate is going to work its will," he said. "There are 535 of us on Capitol Hill and to try to get all of us to agree is not an easy job. The founders never envisioned it to be easy. And it certainly isn't."

Reflecting the political imperative of getting Republican majorities on the same page, the Senate caucus joined the annual House retreat for the first time in 10 years.

Over the course of three days, lawmakers heard a comedy routine from Jay Leno, an overview of world events from former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and interpretations of the political landscape from pollsters and political analysts.

The most important sessions of the retreat were the talks among the members themselves. Late Thursday, the discussion turned to the most thorny political question facing the party: how to respond to the president's recent actions shielding millions of immigrants from the threat of deportation.

A House bill passed Wednesday would not only seek to prevent the new policy from taking effect, but also undo the 2012 deferred action program that spared "Dreamers" from deportation.

Senate Republicans have indicated it will be a heavy lift to overcome the almost-certain filibuster from Democrats.

Because the measure was attached to a must-pass funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security, the standoff could risk a departmental shutdown. McConnell offered no indication of what the next step would be if, as expected, the House version fails to get 60 votes in the Senate.

"No more drama associated with shutting down the — that's off the table. But as to how we proceed, I don't know," said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the Republican whip.

More broadly, some Republicans are looking ahead to the 2016 election, emphasizing the need to put forward a Republican alternative on immigration.

California Republican Rep. Jeff Denham said the House attack this week on Obama's immigration actions "sends the wrong message" about the party's ideas to reform the immigration system.

"The American people have given us a very small window to show some leadership, and this is one of those key issues we've got to show some leadership on," he said.

But Republicans insisted that there were more areas that unite them than divide them, and were hoping to keep the focus there.

McCarthy outlined a host of bills that the Democratic Senate had blocked last year that would be passed again one by one over the next few months.

Though some have robust bipartisan support, Republicans also appear ready — and sometimes eager — to send Obama legislation that reflects the party's priorities and forces him to use his veto pen.

Sen. Richard M. Burr (R-N.C.) said even if House legislation lags in the Senate, voters will be able to have a clear view of Republican priorities, establishing a contrast between the parties heading into the 2016 presidential election.

Over time, Republicans believe, more Democrats in Congress may want to distance themselves from the White House and join the other side of the aisle on issues that are popular with voters, even if they go against the president, he predicted.

"Every day he becomes a more irrelevant piece of the Democratic Party," Burr said. "That's not our job to chase the White House. When you get both houses of Congress, you don't chase shiny objects."

michael.memoli@latimes.com

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

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