WASHINGTON -- Watching with growing unease as the GOP presidential nomination fight promises to stretch into the spring, Republican leaders on Capitol Hill are making moves to protect their own re-election prospects in the fall.
The aim is to fashion a political and legislative agenda to sharpen the party's case against President Barack Obama and Democrats, and to make a coherent argument for why the Democratic-controlled Senate, and not the GOP-led House, is to blame for the congressional gridlock that has disheartened the public. A side benefit is that the legislative strategy might shift public attention away from some of the social issues that have recently dominated their party's presidential contest.
While most congressional leaders continue to believe that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will be the nominee, they worry about how long it will take to secure the nomination and the political costs of a drawn-out battle.
"Every day that goes by [without a nominee] is a day that plays to President Obama's advantage," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has endorsed Romney and was the party's nominee in 2008.
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While GOP leaders are eager for a nominee to emerge so they can begin a coordinated campaign against the Democrats, they are increasingly convinced that they must move ahead with an agenda of their own.
One main concern going forward, key Hill Republicans say, is to avoid falling into more social-issue debates, which have hurt the broader party image and could affect down-ballot races for the House and Senate.
"To the extent that the focus in this cycle is on the economy, it's better for Republicans. I think that's probably where the stronger case for Republican change can be made," said Rep. Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., who managed presidential hopeful Rick Santorum's 1994 campaign for the Senate but remains neutral in the presidential race. "I think we're stronger when we're talking about economics."
The result is a congressional party determined to show action on bread-and-butter issues that can serve as the core of a unified economic agenda.
"We've got plenty of things to worry about here in the House. We've got a transportation bill, we've got Iran, we've got debt and deficit," said Rep. Allen West, R-Fla. " Whatever happens with the presidential race will happen with the presidential race. People sent me up here to focus on being a good congressional representative, not worrying about being a cheerleader in a food fight."
House Republicans had hoped to be able to take some of the presidential nominee's proposals and offer them on the chamber floor, while Senate Republicans might offer them as amendments. If the nomination fight lasts deep into the spring, there will be little or no time for such staged battles in Congress.
One area of legislative indecision has already emerged. While the House GOP is moving ahead with its healthcare debate, Senate Republicans have not decided whether to push for another vote repealing the healthcare law.