President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address Tuesday evening highlighted one of the biggest dilemmas Senate Republicans will face ahead of the midterms: whether to unveil a concrete GOP agenda before Election Day or simply let the Biden administration’s legislative record and poor approval ratings speak for themselves.
GOP Sen. Rick Scott of Florida is advocating the former, and unveiled last week an 11-point “Rescue America” plan detailing a slate of legislative issues Republicans should focus on moving forward. “The American people are very likely to put Republicans in control of the Senate and House in 2022,” Scott wrote in a letter introducing his plan. “But then, what? If Republicans return to Washington’s business as usual, if we have no bigger plan than to be a speed bump on the road to America’s collapse, we don’t deserve to govern.”
But his plan isn’t gaining any traction so far with GOP leadership, at least not publicly. “If we’re fortunate enough to have the majority next year, I’ll be the majority leader; I’ll decide in consultation with my members what to put on the floor,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Tuesday when asked about Scott’s plan.
Most Republican senators interviewed by The Dispatch this week side with McConnell, saying in interviews that their conference should hold off on releasing an agenda and instead highlight areas where the Biden administration is falling short of voters’ expectations.
“Mitch is right. We need to focus on decisions that are being made today that are not in sync with what we think the American people are most concerned with,” GOP Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina said in a brief interview on Wednesday. “And then when we can set the agenda, we can have a discussion about what our priorities will be.”
“We got to get closer to the election,” GOP Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama told The Dispatch on Wednesday, adding that Senate Republicans should wait to see how the Russia-Ukraine crisis unfolds and how much inflation continues to rise before setting an agenda. “At the end of the day, Sen. McConnell—Leader McConnell—will come up with really the talking points for everybody and the direction we want to go for having an agenda.”
Scott’s plan includes a slate of GOP talking points popular with Republican voters, like securing the southern border, curbing abortion, and prohibiting federal forms from asking Americans their “race, ethnicity, or skin color.” But his agenda also includes proposals that are more likely to be controversial among Republicans, such as requiring all Americans to pay an income tax—about half of tax-filing Americans pay no federal income tax—and sunsetting all federal legislation after five years.
“Let me tell you what would not be part of our agenda,” McConnell told reporters on Tuesday. “We will not have as part of our agenda a bill that raises taxes on half the American people, and sunsets Social Security and Medicare within five years.”
Scott has rebuffed claims that his plan would raise taxes, and said on Twitter that “the change we need to make is to require those who are able-bodied but won’t work to pay a small amount so that we’re all in this together,” with the exception of retirees.
But expanding the number of Americans who are required to pay income taxes still doesn’t seem to be a winning campaign pitch, particularly for GOP senators facing tough races next year. Asked for his reaction to Scott’s income tax plan, GOP Sen. Ron Johnson said on Monday that he will “never defend our tax system,” and that “most people, if they’re working, they’re paying payroll tax.” Johnson is a member of the Senate Banking Committee and is up for reelection this fall in Wisconsin, where Trump lost in 2020 by a razor-thin margin. He said it “doesn’t hurt to have something” when asked whether the GOP should publish an agenda.
Scott maintains that he released his “Rescue America” plan as an individual senator and not in his official capacity as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). But releasing a plan without support from party leadership is still an unusual move, especially considering McConnell told reporters in January he had no plan to unveil an agenda until Senate Republicans retake the majority.
Retiring GOP Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama said on Monday that Scott has “worked hard” and he wants him to do his job at NRSC: “elect more Republicans and to get back control of the Senate and go from there.” That comment came with a caveat. “[McConnell’s] got a point — he’s been here a long time, he’s very wise,” Shelby added. “He’d like to be the majority leader. I’d like him to be there.”
In a 50-50 Senate with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote, McConnell sees the November midterms as a prime opportunity for the GOP to flip Democrat-held battleground seats in Georgia, Arizona, and possibly New Hampshire. With that in mind, McConnell told reporters on Tuesday that Republicans should focus instead on kitchen table issues like “inflation, energy, defense, the border, and crime.”
Sen. Joni Ernst, vice chair of the Senate GOP conference, said that part of her concern with releasing one concrete agenda stems from the fact that voters in different states prioritize different issues. “I think it’s OK to have a cohesive overarching plan,” Ernst said in a brief interview Wednesday. “But when it comes to those specifics, let’s leave it up to our senators.”
Tuesday’s press conference came as a blow to Scott, who made the case for adopting his plan at the Conservative Political Action Conference last weekend in Orlando, Florida, where he also handed out merchandise directing people to his Rescue America website.
Earlier this week, at least one senator seemed poised to embrace a concrete legislative plan ahead of the midterms. “Do we need an agenda as GOPers? Definitely,” Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana said on Monday, one day before McConnell said he doesn’t plan to issuing an agenda anytime soon. “We can’t be the party of ‘no’ or ‘I’m not interested in the issues that people expect us to weigh in on.’ So I like the idea that [Scott’s] leading with an agenda.”
That said, he knows where McConnell stands and accurately predicted on Monday that a change of course from McConnell was unlikely. “I’ve been saying that since I’ve gotten here, and it generally doesn’t meet with a lot of enthusiasm,” Braun said.
Sen. Tim Scott’s office told The Dispatch in a statement on Wednesday that issues like “low taxes, protecting the vulnerable, school choice, strong national defense, and opportunity for all” are all agenda items that he has focused on for years and will continue to be on his radar moving forward.
But that statement came two days after the South Carolina Republican answered a question from The Dispatch on whether the GOP should, in fact, adopt an agenda or simply run against Biden: “That’s the big debate on our side right now is the answer to that question.”