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Republican Leaders Have Work Cut Out For Them

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Come the start of the year, the ranks of the unemployed will include Republican members of the House and Senate who lost their jobs in the election. The remaining Republicans are deciding what to do now. They've been choosing new leaders and keeping a few old ones as they struggle to define the loyal opposition. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: There's nothing quite like losing elections to prompt a bit of soul searching in the party ranks.

Representative MIKE PENCE (Republican, Indiana): This is a time of renewal and re-grounding for Republicans on Capitol Hill.

ELLIOTT: That's Indiana Congressman Mike Pence after being elected yesterday as chairman of the House Republican Conference. He's part of a slate of new leaders who come from the party's conservative wing. Pence says Republicans must get back to their core principals.

Representative PENCE: That's a commitment to a strong defense, to limited government, and to defending traditional moral values. While there certainly are differences among members on the margins of those issues, I think that the principles that minted our majority in 1994, the principles that carried Ronald Reagan to office in 1980, still represent the governing majority of the United States of America.

ELLIOTT: Capitol Hill Republicans are holding onto that belief, even as they face the reality of an emboldened majority and a Democrat in the White House. Eric Cantor of Virginia is the new minority whip.

Representative ERIC CANTOR (Republican, Virginia): We are going to serve as the honest opposition to the administration of the president-elect. We will serve as a check and a balance to the power of President-elect Obama and Speaker Pelosi.

ELLIOTT: This week's lame-duck session on a Democratic plan to rescue struggling U.S. automakers has provided a platform for that voice, as most Republicans have lined up against the auto bailout. House Minority Leader John Boehner.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio): Our opposition is rooted in trying to protect the American taxpayer.

ELLIOTT: Despite the election losses, Republicans re-elected Boehner of Ohio for a second term as their leader. He fended off a challenge from conservative Dan Lungren of California. Boehner promised to work to win back the trust of Americans.

Representative BOEHNER: And our job as a party is to find solutions, solutions that are built on our principles as a political party, the two foundations of freedom and security.

ELLIOTT: Boehner and others believe House Republicans struck the right cord this summer with their push to open up U.S. waters to offshore oil and gas drilling, and plan to build on that message. Packaging the GOP message and finding candidates to carry it will be the job of Texas Congressman Pete Sessions, who replaces Oklahoma's Tom Cole as chairman of the Republican's Campaign Committee.

Representative PETE SESSIONS (Republican, Texas): We have gotten away from people connecting, a growing economy, stability at home, and how economic policies all work together. We're going to have to go back and explain that having government programs to bailouts is not our idea of a solvent, secure economy.

ELLIOTT: With fewer moderates left in the House GOP, the conservative right wing of the party will carry more weight. Whip Eric Cantor says that shouldn't matter.

Representative CANTOR: It's not about right or center. It's not about center or left. It's not about conservative or liberal. This is about delivering upon the promises that people expect its government to deliver on. It's about producing a government that works for the people again and not the other way around.

ELLIOTT: Republicans in the Senate are also talking about a return to core values. Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.

Senator LAMAR ALEXANDER (Republican, Tennessee): We don't need new principles. We don't need to hire a PR firm. We've had a failure of imagination on the Republican side. We need to turn the principles we believe in into solutions that affect Americans on an everyday basis - on electric prices, on health insurance, on helping balance the family budget, keeping spending under control. We know how to do that. We will do that. And we're looking forward to it.

ELLIOTT: Amid the policy talk, the new head of the Republican Senate Campaign Committee, John Cornyn of Texas, has a more pragmatic take.

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): The right policies and the right message are very, very important, but they don't count for much unless you can win elections.

ELLIOTT: For Cornyn, the path back to the majority starts in 2010. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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United States & World Morning Edition
NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.