When Mitt Romney announced last month that he agreed with President Barack Obama’s effort to keep federal student loan interest rates from doubling this summer, he broke with many congressional Republicans who say the government shouldn’t subsidize such borrowing.
Yet there was little public grumbling among Republicans on Capitol Hill, who had received a private heads-up just hours before Romney’s statement. Within days, members of his party in the U.S. House introduced legislation matching his stance. It passed by week’s end.
It’s an example of how the presumed Republican presidential nominee has been able to overcome rifts within his party that might otherwise undermine his chances of winning the White House in November. So far, Romney has harnessed an intense hunger to beat Obama among congressional Republicans willing to paper over their policy differences in pursuit of the presidency.
“I’m opposed to doing this,” Senator Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, said of the student-loan rate freeze.
“But frankly, I’m glad Romney was smart enough not to take the bait on it, because he’s got to pick his battles and not try to jump on everything the Democrats are throwing out there to try to trip him up,” said DeMint, known for his penchant to grind the Senate to a halt to block initiatives with which he disagrees. “Fortunately, I think Romney’s going to be smart enough to navigate that and try to keep the focus on the big issues, and I’m not going to stand in his way.”
With close message coordination and consultation with lawmakers and their staff on Capitol Hill in twice-daily conference calls and sit-downs with party leaders, Romney and his team are succeeding where past presidential campaigns have sometimes failed to disastrous effect.
“There’s an understanding on our part: this time we’ve got to coordinate,” said Senator Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican who is a prospective vice presidential running mate for Romney and is helping collaborate on policy proposals with the campaign. “There’s just better coordination on everything -- fundraising, as well as policy, as well as politics. People are really interested in being seamless.”
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, started with an advantage in relations with congressional Republicans because many of his top advisers have ties to Capitol Hill.
His political director, Rich Beeson, worked with House Speaker John Boehner’s political chief at the Republican National Committee four years ago. Kevin Madden, who is coordinating with the RNC for Romney and was a spokesman for his failed 2008 presidential campaign, is a former aide to Boehner, an Ohio Republican.
Tea Party Link
The links extend to those affiliated with the anti-government Tea Party movement. Romney’s campaign manager, Matt Rhoades, not only worked at the RNC with Tim Griffin, now a first-term congressman from Arkansas elected with Tea Party support, he was a member of Griffin’s wedding.
The dynamic is different than four years ago, when relations between Arizona Senator John McCain, the party’s presidential nominee, and congressional Republicans hovered between frosty and dysfunctional. The result was a muddled party message culminating in a White House meeting convened by then-President George W. Bush, a Republican, and including McCain that vividly displayed party divisions over a $700 billion financial rescue plan.
By contrast, Romney’s operation is concentrating on honing an economy-focused message for the candidate and Republican lawmakers to promote -- while avoiding social issues that can divide them internally and turn off independent voters -- and in finding ways for each to amplify the other.
Days after the student loan episode, the campaign tapped J.T. Jezierski, a former congressional aide who was in charge of courting elected officials for Romney during the 2008 race, to be its full-time liaison to Capitol Hill.
Jezierski, who runs a weekly political look-ahead call and splits his time between Romney’s Boston campaign headquarters and Capitol Hill, spent part of his first three weeks on the job phoning each of the 289 Republican congressional chiefs of staff. “I didn’t want anyone to say they never heard from me,” he said.
“The biggest thing is really information sharing -- it’s a combination of making sure that the Hill knows what we’re doing, but also conveying to the campaign what the Hill is doing and what members are thinking,” Jezierski said in an interview.
Republicans’ shared concern about the economy “has made it a lot easier not to lose focus,” he said. “We’re hanging everything on that message.”
It’s not always likely to be easy. As Romney works to flesh out policies on issues including immigration, financial regulation and health care, divides among Republicans are likely to surface, and both the campaign and congressional leaders are aware they won’t necessarily agree.
Still, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who met with Romney on Capitol Hill May 23 after he delivered an education speech across town, Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia are all working to ensure the Republican congressional agenda doesn’t detract from the presidential campaign’s message, aides say.
Romney has returned the favor; he came out March 21 in support of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s spending blueprint -- which incorporated Romney’s idea to give seniors an option of staying in the traditional Medicare program rather than switching to federally subsidized private health insurance.
Romney’s policy director, Lanhee Chen, visited Capitol Hill earlier this month to consult with senior Republicans on an array of issues, including health care, in the office of House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California.
Government Reform and Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa of California briefed Chen on his panel’s probe of the “Fast and Furious” federal gun investigation that went awry with the 2010 murder of a U.S. Border Patrol agent. Chen also consulted with Representatives Tom Price of Georgia, who heads House Republicans’ policy operation, and Jim Jordan of Ohio, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee.
“Even if they don’t agree with him on everything, every member of Congress shares something in common with the governor -- they’re both going to be on the ballot -- so I don’t think there’s going to be much difficulty staying together,” said Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah, who acts as an informal liaison between Romney’s campaign and House Republicans. “In principle, everybody wants to beat Barack Obama.”