Veteran Republicans' Advice To Winners: Don't Blow It

NPR's Mara Liasson asks political experts what advice they have for Republicans in the new Congress.

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The Republicans just won an historic number of seats in the House. Now they must figure out exactly what they will do with them.

Let's hear, again, from NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson, who's rounded up some advice from Republicans who've experienced divided government before.

MARA LIASSON: The man who will be the next speaker of the House, John Boehner, and the man who will lead a newly enlarged Republican minority in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, both have a delicate balancing act to perform as they figure out how to use their newfound power.

They're not calling their historic victory a revolution and they're dismissing talk of any imminent government shutdowns. But just like the Democrats in 2008, Republicans will have to deal with the pent-up desires of their base. The new Tea Party-backed freshmen and the business community have urgent demands: Repeal Obamacare, they say; cut taxes; balance the budget; roll back regulation.

But first, says Ken Duberstein - who was Ronald Reagan's chief of staff in a period of divided government - the Republicans should slow down. They should, he says, try to under-promise and over-deliver.

Mr. KEN DUBERSTEIN (Former Chief of Staff, Reagan Administration): My advice to the Republicans is recognize, as hard as it may sound, that this was a referendum on Obama and the Democrats. And it was not because the country is in love with your agenda - big, big difference. Find areas of working together with President Obama to demonstrate to the country that you are not a party of stop, but you're a party of go - but let's go in the right way.

LIASSON: Former Republican Congressman Tom Reynolds - who's served in the minority and the majority - says Republicans need to understand what the voters want them to do first.

Mr. TOM REYNOLDS (Republican, New York, Former Congressman): The first piece of advice I would have is make sure you are clearly coming out of what America is thinking. You've heard what America's asking for. The Democrats should've been working on jobs and the economy, and they got diverted for, first of all, the aspect of cap and trade in the House, and then almost 18 months on health care. And the public wanted a focus on a 9.5 to 10 percent unemployment.

The Democrats weren't there and I think they paid a heck of a price for that.

LIASSON: So, says Reynolds, try to deal with the economy before you try to repeal the health care law. And when you do take on the health care, be careful; the overall bill may be unpopular but there's a lot in it that people actually like.

Perhaps the most appropriate dispenser of advice for the new Republican leaders is former House speaker Newt Gingrich. He led his party out of the wilderness in 1994. Gingrich's advice: Cooperate with President Obama but don't compromise.

Mr. NEWT GINGRICH (Republican, Georgia, Former House Speaker): My recommendation to them would be that they immediately figure out who among the Democrats might form a bipartisan majority. Both because they'll give them a margin with their own members, and also because I think the country would find it fascinating to see Boehner and McConnell reaching out.

And in McConnell's case, for example, Ben Nelson is up for re-election, he's gonna have every vested interest in working with McConnell, even if not switching parties. So if I were the Republicans, I would pick some issues where you can find, you can build a coherent majority if it's bipartisan.

LIASSON: And all these Republican veterans agree on one overarching piece of advice: The GOP has been given a second chance in the House, just four years after they lost the majority, so don't blow it.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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