GOP Ready For Hot Button Issues Like Health Care

Members of the House are expected to vote this week on repealing the nation's health care law. While the measure will pass the Republican-controlled House, it won't make it through the Democratic-controlled Senate. GOP pollster David Winston talks to Renee Montagne about how he thinks public opinion will shape the House Republican strategy going forward.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Congress returns this week with a vote to repeal the nation's health care law. While the measure will pass, the Republican-controlled House, it won't make it through the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Our next guest advises the Republican leadership in both the House and the Senate. Republican pollster David Winston spent the weekend at the House GOP's retreat in Baltimore and he joined us in our studio.

Good morning.

Mr. DAVID WINSTON (Republican Pollster, Strategist): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Recent polls are showing that support and opposition to the law remain just about equally divided the health care law. Aside from the fact that fulfilling a Republican campaign promise is important, what is the strategy in continuing with this vote?

Mr. WINSTON: Well, first off, I would suggest that actually some of the polls have shown the margin a little bit wider. Generally, it's either neutral or has been slightly negative toward the law.

With the strategy here is, is one, it was a campaign promise but the other dynamic is Republicans feel that this is an important debate to have and so the idea is let's get it through the House and then we can get into the debate with the Senate and the president in terms of, so, what should this look like?

MONTAGNE: And the tone of the debate?

Mr. WINSTON: I think you're going to see the tone of the debate be exactly the way John Boehner said it would when he came in as speaker, when he said we can disagree without being disagreeable.

MONTAGNE: John Boehner, though, has actually changed a little bit of the language already - what had been referred to by Republicans as a job-killing bill is now being referred to in a slightly different way.

Mr. WINSTON: I think he's describing it as job-destroying.

MONTAGNE: I mean, subtle but different.

Mr. WINSTON: No. And, again, this gets to who he is. Look, was he has to have and he understands that both sides are going to have very strong positions and they need to be able to debate those positions. I would suggest to you the Republicans won the political debate on health care...

MONTAGNE: And the election.

Mr. WINSTON: ...and - and the election - and so therefore with the dynamic that John Boehner's trying to set up is saying, Okay, here's our position, let's have a debate about where we should go.

MONTAGNE: There has been quite a chorus from Republican leaders to the effect that the Democrats still control Washington. What is the thinking with that? It sounds like lowering expectations.

Mr. WINSTON: It's setting up and understanding what the realistic situation. Look, Democrats still have significant control over the process by having the Senate and the White House. And so understanding that as we try to move forward, this is going to be a very difficult process.

Now, haven't said that, the challenge to both the Republicans and Democrats is people want to see something done. And if there's a perception that one side is playing politics - and I'm not saying which one; I'm just saying if it's perceived - that will be a negative for that particular side.

MONTAGNE: On the other hand, there are many voters - and I'll say in the Tea Party - who are quite passionate about getting very dramatic things done and who were the big part of the Republican win. Might that be a problem for Republicans?

Mr. WINSTON: No. I think in talking to Tea Party members what you find is, yes, Tea Party members have some very clear beliefs but they also want to see progress made. And they also sense there's this sense of responsibility. So, for example, when you talk about increasing the debt ceiling, there's an understanding that we have to maintain our obligations in terms of our financial commitments.

But having said that, there's an expectation that there are going to be some additional items within that that will move this country more towards fiscal responsibility. And so it's the sense of don't simply just acquiesce but you have to maintain your obligations as well and so how do you effectively balance that?

MONTAGNE: As a Republican strategist, what do you see as the major pitfalls, the dangers for Republicans going forward in trying to achieve their agenda under complicated circumstances?

Mr. WINSTON: Let me start at a much broader level, and I would suggest this isn't necessarily the problem Republicans face; it's every speaker. This is the same problem Nancy Pelosi had, Dennis Hastert, Newt Gingrich, Jim Wright. I mean, just go back over time. And that is you're managing a majority coalition; you've got a lot of members who don't necessarily agree on everything.

Now, one of the things I will tell you that is John Boehner's strength is the ability to get everybody pointed in the right direction. It's one of the singularly most difficult thing for leaders to do. It is one of his key strengths. It is also one of his key challenges.

MONTAGNE: Republican pollster David Winston advises Republican leaders in the House and the Senate. Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. WINSTON: Thanks for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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