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Republicans take back-to-basics tack

On a day when House Democrats celebrated their first taste of power in a dozen years, Republicans eschewed news conferences and raucous receptions yesterday and instead quietly conferred among themselves and observed the traditional Opening Day rites with their families and friends.
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On a day when House Democrats celebrated their first taste of power in a dozen years, Republicans eschewed news conferences and raucous receptions yesterday and instead quietly conferred among themselves and observed the traditional Opening Day rites with their families and friends.

But GOP leaders signaled that they won't quietly fade into the background, and they pledged to promote innovative policies and stay true to conservative ideals -- a path that they hope will lead to victory in 2008. Although they will challenge Democrats on a broad range of domestic and foreign policy issues, they say they won't resort to guerrilla-style tactics or harsh rhetoric.

"We plan to engage in a rigorous, substantive, policy-oriented debate on the issues facing this country," said Rep. Adam H. Putnam (Fla.), the GOP conference chairman. "We will certainly work together when we can, and have respectful disagreements when we can't."

Chief Deputy Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) declared, "If we legislate and act like Republicans, we will remind the American people that they voted for a conservative government," noting that at least 60 House Democrats won election this fall in districts that backed President Bush in 2004.

Democrats swept to power in November, winning a majority of 233 to 202 seats in the House and a narrow 51 to 49 seats in the Senate.

Republicans struggled earlier this week to adjust to their new minority status, which is unknown territory for newer GOP House members. In a series of interviews, senior Republicans, particularly in the House, warned Democrats against acting unilaterally in passing their agenda -- a leadership style that the GOP itself used for many years.

In the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and other Republicans vowed to work closely with the new Democratic leadership, beginning with ethics and lobbying reform and an increase in the minimum wage. One of the first bills introduced in the Senate was offered by Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) along with the committee's ranking Republican, Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, to repeal the alternative minimum tax.

Republicans had a mixed legislative record in the past several years and suffered from a series of high-profile corruption scandals that demolished a once-powerful House leadership team, including former majority leader Tom DeLay (Tex.). The Republican-controlled Senate also proved to be a black hole for most substantive bills.

The new minority leadership appeared to acknowledge its shortcomings. "I stake my party to a pledge: When faced with an urgent issue, we will act; when faced with a problem, we will seek solutions, not mere political advantage," McConnell said in a floor speech.

For the most part, Republicans spoke of how they could work together with the new majority. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) struck a congenial tone before handing over the gavel to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

"Whether you are a Democrat or Republican or independent, today is a cause for celebration," Boehner said.

Several Republicans said they hoped the two parties could agree on fiscal issues. Democrats are talking about restoring discipline to government spending, and Bush outlined a plan Wednesday to balance the budget in five years.

"That's an opportunity for bipartisanship," Putnam said.

Republicans who are concerned that the party has veered from its ideological roots after years in the majority say the GOP needs to focus on the conservative ideas that helped it win power more than a decade ago.

"We were elected to the majority with ideas, and we'll come back to the majority with ideas," said Rep. John Linder (Ga.), a close ally of former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and the onetime chairman of the House GOP campaign arm.

But rather than focusing on hot-button issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and gun rights, most GOP lawmakers said they could win back voters' confidence by espousing fiscal discipline.

"We're going to return to our roots, especially on economic policy, taxes and spending," said Rep. Paul D. Ryan (Wis.). "The era of big-government spending is at an end in the Republican Party."

Although congressional Republicans have deferred to Bush on a host of domestic and foreign policy issues since he took office in 2001, last year's electoral losses may encourage some GOP lawmakers to challenge the president during his last two years in office. Most Republicans marched in lockstep in supporting the president's war policies in Iraq, but with polls showing that the majority of Americans consider the war a big mistake, more Republicans may begin to break ranks.

"There's still some resentment among members at the fact our losses would have been a lot less if they had gotten rid of [Donald H.] Rumsfeld sooner," said Rep. David L. Hobson (R-Ohio), referring to the former defense secretary. "The president has to do some serious work with members of the House on the Republican side. People are going to be more independent now. In the past, they had to be part of the team."

In one sign of how Republicans are working to differentiate themselves from the White House, Rep. Heather A. Wilson (N.M.) -- who narrowly won reelection in November -- plans to deliver a major speech on Iraq today .

"I'm from the old school of national security that believes partisan politics ends at the water's edge," said Wilson, a member of the House intelligence committee. "Some of us who are neither cheerleaders nor bomb throwers need to step up on this one."

Staff writer Shailagh Murray contributed to this report.