DES MOINES, Iowa - For years, Republicans in the U.S. have adhered fiercely to their bedrock conservative principles, resisting Democratic calls for tax hikes, comprehensive immigration reform and gun control. Now, seven weeks after President Barack Obama won a strong re-election, some party leaders are signalling a willingness to bend on all three issues.
What long has been a nonstarter for Republicans — raising tax rates on wealthy Americans and on capital gains — is now backed by Republican House Speaker John Boehner as he negotiates with Obama to avert a potential fiscal crisis at the end of this year. Party luminaries, including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, have started calling for a wholesale shift in the Republicans' approach to immigration after Hispanic voters shunned the party's candidates. And some Republicans who previously championed gun rights now are opening the door to restrictions following the school shooting in Connecticut earlier this month.
"Put guns on the table. Also, put video games on the table. Put mental health on the table," Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia said last week. Other prominent Republicans echoed him in calling for a sweeping review of how to prevent tragedies like the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre. Among those who were open to a re-evaluation of gun policies were Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Chuck Grassley of Iowa.
"You've got to take all these things into consideration," Grassley said.
And yet, the head of the most powerful gun-rights lobbying-group, the National Rifle Association, has proposed staffing schools with armed police, making clear the Republican-leaning group will continue pushing for fewer gun restrictions, not more.
Meanwhile, Boehner's attempt to get his party members on board with a deficit-reduction plan that would raise taxes on incomes of more than $1 million crashed and burned last week, exposing the reluctance of many in the House Republican caucus to entertain more moderate fiscal positions.
It's too soon to know whether the party that emerges from this identity crisis will be more or less conservative than the one that marched so confidently into the 2012 election. Less than two months have passed since the crushing defeat of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who moved far to the right while campaigning to be his party's nominee and, some in the party say, lost the general election as a result.
But what's increasingly clear is that the party is now engaged in a public, uncomfortable fight over whether its tenets conflict with the views of Americans as a whole.
"We lost the election because we were out of touch with the American people," said John Weaver, a senior adviser to past presidential candidates John McCain, the Republican nominee in 2008, and Jon Huntsman, who ran for the nomination this year.
The polling suggests as much. While Republican candidates for years have adamantly opposed tax increases on anyone, an Associated Press-GfK poll earlier this month found roughly half of all Americans supported allowing George W. Bush-era tax cuts to expire on those earning more than $250,000 a year.
Most Republican candidates also long have opposed allowing people in the country illegally to get an eventual path to citizenship. But exit polls from the Nov. 6 election showed most voters favoured allowing people working in the U.S. illegally to stay.
And gun control has for decades been anathema to Republicans. But a Washington Post/ABC News poll published last week showed 54 per cent of Americans now favour stronger restrictions.
This is the backdrop as Republicans undergo a period of soul-searching. Republicans also shed seats in their House majority in the election and lost ground to majority Democrats in the Senate.
Of particular concern is the margin of loss among Hispanics, a growing voting bloc which Obama won by about 70 per cent to 30 per cent. It took only hours after the loss for national Republican leaders to blame Romney for shifting to the right on immigration — and signal that the party must change.
Jindal, a prospective 2016 presidential contender whose family is from India, was among the Republicans calling for a more measured approach. Even previously hardline opponents of immigration reform — like conservative talk show host Sean Hannity — said the party needed to get over its stance favouring only border security.
"What you have is agreement that we as a party need to spend a lot of time and effort on the Latino vote," veteran Republican strategist Charlie Black said.
When Congress returned to Washington after the election to start a debate over taxes and spending, a number of prominent Republicans, including Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, signalled they would be willing to abandon their pledges against raising taxes — as long as other conditions were met — as part of a package of proposals to avoid a catastrophic budget meltdown.
Leading the effort was Boehner, who has told Obama he would allow taxes to be increased on the wealthiest Americans as part of a deal including spending cuts and provisions to slow the growth of entitlements. Obama has made concessions in the talks to avoid the so-called "fiscal cliff" — the automatic tax hikes and spending cuts set to take effect in January — by agreeing to a higher income threshold for higher taxes while insisting that Congress grant him the authority to raise the debt ceiling.
If silence among Republicans is a signal, shifts on other issues could be coming, chief among them gay marriage, which the party base long has opposed. Exit polls found half of all Americans say same-sex marriage should be legally recognized.
After three states — Washington, Maryland and Maine — voted to legalize gay marriage last month, the Republican leadership has remained quiet on the issue. And there has been no effort in the House or Senate to push major legislation, only narrower proposals, such as a move in the Armed Services Committee to bar gay marriages at military facilities.
In a sign that the fight over gay marriage may be waning within the Republican base, Newt Gingrich said it was time for Republicans to accept shifting public opinion.
The former House speaker, who oversaw passage of the Defence of Marriage Act in Congress and helped finance state campaigns to fight gay marriage in 2010, said in a Huffington Post interview that the party should work toward acceptance of rights for gay couples, while still distinguishing them from marriage. The Defence of Marriage Act defines marriage as between a man and a woman for the purpose of deciding who can receive a range of federal health and pension benefits.
"The momentum is clearly now in the direction in finding some way to . accommodate and deal with reality," Gingrich said.
Associated Press writers Josh Lederman, Thomas Beaumont, Donna Cassata and Dennis Junius in Washington contributed to this report.
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