GOP’s ‘Pledge’ aims to walk a fine line

In unveiling their “Pledge to America” on Thursday, House Republicans hoped to portray a party hard at work on its priorities and braced to defend itself against accusations that it is short on ideas.

But the 21-page manifesto also showed a party in the middle of a balancing act.

The document reflects Republicans’ struggle to harness the energy of the insurgent “tea party” without hitching their wagons to some of the movement’s more politically difficult policy ideas. Though laden with the tea party’s patriotic rhetoric and calls for a constitutional revival, the pledge only dabbles in what might be described as tea party policies. Rather, in large part, its proposals are the stuff of traditional Republican doctrine — tax cuts, fewer mandates on business, and repeal of the healthcare overhaul.

In a news conference Thursday, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R- Ohio) tried to walk the line between pragmatism and inspiring passion. He touted the document as “a new way forward that hasn’t been tried in Washington” but also acknowledged it was cautious.

“If you look at the pledge, it’s not intended to be a party platform. It’s not intended to cover everything under the sun,” he told reporters. “It’s about what needs to be done now — first steps toward real fiscal sanity in Washington, D.C.”

Though most believe that the political climate has handed Boehner a clear course to big wins in November, he and other GOP leaders are trying not to trip up in the final stretch. His challenge, analysts say, is crafting a coalition that includes the energized activists of the tea party but doesn’t leave out social conservatives or moderate Republicans.

Soon after the announcement, a coalition of conservative groups announced they had allied to push for a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget, a policy left out of the pledge. The coalition was organized by Real Action, an arm of a group formed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Meanwhile, tea party activists expressed disappointment in what they see as a lack of specifics.

“The first time you read it, it’s like, ‘Yeah, this is all right,’ ” said Andrew Ian Dodge, a coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots in Maine. “Every time you read it, it gets less satisfying. It’s full of platitudes. It’s almost a bit patronizing. There are all these words that tea party people like, but there’s nothing concrete in it.”

Anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist was more positive.

“It is a floor for activity. It is a very good floor. Do we want more? Sure. It’s a tremendous first step,” he said.

The pledge picks up some tea party proposals and leaves others, bearing only a partial resemblance to the movement’s “Contract from America.”

Both contracts were created using an online voting system — giving them a populist bent. Both would like every bill to cite constitutional authority, want to reject cap-and-trade legislation and call for spending caps.

However, the tea party contract is far more specific — and more drastic. It calls for scrapping the internal revenue code and replacing it with a single tax rate. And it comes up with a formula for capping federal spending — the sum of the inflation rate plus the percentage of population growth.

Ryan Hecker, a Texas tea party activist who spearheaded the Contract from America project, said he saw the House pledge as “a step in the right direction.”

“I think they still need to sign the Contract from America,” he said.

But the pledge is watered down to make its ideas more palatable to establishment Republicans, Dodge said.

“There’s not a lot of grass roots in this,” he said.

That is a charge leveled by Democrats too, who noted that some of the suggestions that appeared most popular online — including legislation discouraging companies from sending jobs overseas — were not in the final document.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), the House majority leader, said Republicans had offered no new solutions to the problems plaguing the country.

“Just as we expected, the Republican agenda has no new ideas and will take us right back to the exact same agenda that failed middle-class families and small businesses,” Hoyer said.

James Oliphant and Lisa Mascaro of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.