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Obamacare and illegal immigration left off the agenda at major conservative conference

Heritage Action COO Tim Chapman and Sen. Ted Cruz, at Monday's policy summit
Heritage Action COO Tim Chapman and Sen. Ted Cruz, at Monday's policy summit
(Alex Wong / Getty)
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

As Republicans plan their first big moves holding the majority in Congress, a combative group famous for turning up the heat on the party is suddenly trying to play it cool.

Over the past few years, the conservatives at Heritage Action — the advocacy arm of the Heritage Foundation — have pushed hard to move the GOP to the right on issues like the debt ceiling, Obamacare, and immigration. Their tactics were so harsh they helped lead to the government shutdown last year and ultimately alienated many in their own party. "At the moment, there is no conservative group more disliked by House Republicans than Heritage Action," Ramesh Ponnuru wrote in 2011.

But at the first day of the group's conservative policy summit on Monday — an event meant to shape the Republican policy agenda — fiery warfare was replaced with panels meant to sound positive, reasonable, and responsible.

On some controversial issues, speakers and panelists repeatedly discussed what language could make their conservative proposals seem most appealing to average Americans. And other hot-button issues like Obamacare and immigration, which the group has long viewed as crucial, were not even on the official agenda.

While keynote speaker Ted Cruz was a notable exception to the theme of the day, offering up the red meat he loves to dish, the tone and mood in the room are a reminder of where the party, and conservatives more broadly, find themselves heading into 2016. Republicans won big in the midterms, but they now think that to take the White House, they need to convince Americans that they aren't just bomb throwers but a party that can govern responsibly.

That's led to a new strategy for now: change your words — to appear more positive and productive — and the results will follow.

As the summit opened, Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint deemed the attendees "the real progressives in Washington," for "fighting against the status quo" and "showing Americans how we can progress to a better future."

Later, Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) suggested that the GOP "reinvent itself or rename itself, I think, the Grand Opportunity Party." And Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN) stressed that a bill of his that would allow employers in union shops to give merit pay increases to individual workers "isn't an anti-union bill; it's a pro-worker bill."

"Normalize the debate"

Jim DeMint

Heritage Foundation Jim DeMint speaks at the summit on Monday. (Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call Group / Getty)

The talk of political framing became even more explicit when House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-GA) spoke. Price said a key task of his House Budget Committee would be to "normalize the debate around controversial issues" — like the far-reaching changes conservatives want for Medicare and Social Security.

Price, a genial longtime physician, said that the committee's previous chair, Paul Ryan, had already made a great deal of progress on this front. "A few years ago, nobody would've given us a prayer" of holding onto seniors' votes while backing premium support for Medicare, Price said. But even though Ryan's reforms weren't enacted, there's now widespread support for them across the GOP — they've been normalized. And, Heritage Action COO Tim Chapman pointed out, House Republicans' numbers "keep going up."

What was the key to Ryan's success? You can get a clue about Price's main takeaway from the language he used. Again and again, he mentioned that conservative reforms would "save, strengthen, and secure" Medicare and Medicaid. Words like "cut" have been banished from the lexicon. Price suggested that perhaps his committee could similarly "normalize the discussion and the debate about Social Security" — and floated means-testing, raising the eligibility age, and voluntary private accounts as possibilities.

Meanwhile, on the controversial new budget accounting rules House Republicans are adopting, Price rejected the standard term "dynamic scoring," saying, "I call it accurate and realistic scoring." But he also tried to downplay the policy's impact, arguing that it would only apply to major new legislation with a fiscal impact greater than 0.25 percent of GDP. "It's dipping our toe in the water," he said.

Left off the agenda: Obamacare and immigration

Obamacare protester Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images

An Obamacare protester outside the Supreme Court in 2012. (Mladen Antonov / AFP / Getty)

Heritage Action scheduled 11 panels on various topics over the summit's two days — on energy, education, foreign policy, family values, and other issues. The explicit theme of the conference was "opportunity for all, favoritism for none." (Here, that "favoritism" referred not to government benefits for the underserving, but to "cronyism" and "corporate welfare.")

But perhaps what was most striking was what wasn't represented at this "conservative policy summit" — there wasn't a single panel focused on Obamacare or illegal immigration. For years these have been centerpiece issues for conservatives generally and for Heritage Action specifically. While the group certainly isn't changing its positions on either issue, the summit's agenda shows they appear to have taken a back seat.

The health law was brought up every so often by speakers, but most of the references seemed pro forma. "I'd be remiss if I didn't mention health care and Obamacare," Price said near the end of his remarks. But he mainly said that if the Supreme Court should happen to throw out many Obamacare subsidies in the King v. Burwell case, the GOP should be ready with reforms of its own.

Ted Cruz: A different approach

Ted Cruz Heritage Action

Ted Cruz speaks at the Heritage Action summit on Monday. (Alex Wong / Getty)

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) has long been close to Heritage Action, and they agreed on strategy in the fight over defunding Obamacare that led to the government shutdown. But Cruz's keynote address at Monday's conference seemed to instead contrast with the group's new priorities. He laid out his personal top 10 agenda items for the new GOP Congress, put Obamacare and immigration near the top — and didn't sugarcoat anything.

"We need to do everything humanly possible to repeal Obamacare," Cruz said. He said an expected Obama veto should be followed up by "legislation after legislation easing the pain," including a bill saying "if you like your health insurance plan, you can keep your health insurance plan." Then, he said, "we need to finally secure the border and stop the president's unconstitutional amnesty."

Cruz said that Republican candidates promised their voters they'd fight hard on "both Obamacare and amnesty," but that "now, when the topics come up, sometimes you hear crickets chirping." It almost seemed a chiding rebuttal to the summit organizers. "We need to do what we said we were going to do," he said.

Cruz's speech was the most-attended and most-applauded one of the day. But Heritage Action seemed to be on a different page. Strategically, the group now seemed to prefer language and legislation that seemed less controversial. "We get the mandate we want in 2017," its COO Tim Chapman said, "by legislating in 2015."

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