WASHINGTON – Republicans won dozens of elections last fall after claiming Democrats had focused too little on creating jobs. Now GOP lawmakers stand accused of the same charge, using their new House majority to push to repeal the president's health care law, restrict abortions and highlight other social issues important to their most conservative supporters.
Republican leaders say they have a jobs agenda, kicked off by their attempt to unravel what they call the Democrats' "jobs-killing" health overhaul.
Democrats scoff at this notion, and they're hounding Republicans to show how they can put more people to work.
"It's astonishing to me how tone-deaf the Republicans have been in the first weeks of the session," said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. "They've talked about everything but jobs."
Few were surprised when House Republicans moved quickly and voted to overturn the law, but the Democratic-controlled Senate will block that effort.
Heads turned when Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, presented the next item on the agenda: writing into law a perennially renewed ban on federal dollars for abortion, and to specify that it applies to health plans.
The abortion proposal "reflects the will of the people," said Boehner. "It's one of our highest legislative priorities."
When reporters asked why jobs weren't the main focus, Boehner said it was vital to vote against the health law because "it's destroying jobs in America."
He and his fellow Republicans say the law could wipe out 650,000 jobs.
Democrats dispute that claim. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office put the law's effect on supply and demand for labor as small.
At best, House Republicans seem to be sending mixed or diluted messages about job creation while they promote social issues that appeal to conservative activists. Examples include limiting jury awards in medical malpractice cases and expanding the District of Columbia's school voucher program.
Democrats are pouncing. Each day, they echo the taunt that Republicans used in the November elections: You're not doing enough to create jobs.
"Republicans waging losing war on health care while Democrats focus on jobs," said a headline Friday from the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. He told reporters that "we still recognize that our number one issue is jobs." He said he was preparing a small-business innovation bill "that would also create jobs."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., sends daily "talking points" to colleagues with suggestions such as "another day, another opportunity lost for Republicans to work with Democrats on job creation."
In truth, there's only so much the government can do to create jobs, short of expensive stimulus bills or public works programs such as those launched by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Numerous and complex factors that affect the U.S. and global economies play a bigger role.
Curiously, perhaps, both parties have accused the other of fixating on health care instead of jobs. Health care, more than any other issue, energized the Democrats' liberal base in 2008 and 2009, and, conversely, fired up the GOP's conservative base as well.
Barack Obama campaigned on overhauling the health care system, and his backers saw his 2008 election as a mandate to follow through. In Congress, the process proved extremely difficult and partisan, with no Republicans voting for the final version.
Raucous protests against the legislation helped launch the tea party movement in 2009. Dozens of GOP candidates ran last fall on a promise to overturn the health law. Once elected, they claimed their own mandate to act right away on the issue, just as Democrats had done two years earlier.
Both parties risk appearing to cater to their hard-core supporters at the expense of political centrists worried mainly about jobs.
A new AP-GfK poll asked 1,000 adults to name the one thing they would want the federal government to do this year, if it accomplished only a single thing. The economy and jobs ranked first, cited by 38 percent of those surveyed. By comparison, 31 percent named health care, with some supporting Obama's health law and some opposing it.
No other issue exceeded 12 percent; abortion barely registered.
Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who oversaw GOP House campaigns in past years, defended the early focus on health care and abortion. "These are commitments we made" during the fall campaign, he said, adding that a heavier emphasis on jobs is coming soon.