WASHINGTON — When Republicans seized control of the House four years ago, Rep. Fred Upton, R-Michigan, took over the House Energy and Commerce Committee and compared his plans for President Barack Obama's health care law to strategy in the game of Jenga, in which players remove wooden blocks one by one from a tower until it collapses.
"It's like this game," he told me back then. "We're going to pull out the pieces."
With Republicans increasingly likely to win control of the Senate in two weeks, and perhaps the White House in two years, they again smell opportunity — a better chance than ever to undo what they see as the liberal government policies that are core to Obama's legacy.
At the top of the agenda: reining in Obama's climate-change policies and dismantling parts of the Affordable Care Act.
"There's tons of planning going on," says Arthur C. Brooks, president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, which has produced many of the top ideas for how to push Washington in a conservative direction. "The good news is that Republicans are starting to get serious to figure out how to counteract what's gone wrong. Every American knows that a lot needs to be changed."
In the next two years, Republicans are looking to force the president to allow more oil and gas exploration on federal lands, a position opposed by environmentalists who say it will mar vistas, endanger certain species, and spoil water resources. They're also looking to vote on approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, a decision Obama has resisted for years. GOP lawmakers are also contemplating how they can erect a legislative roadblock to the proposed Environmental Protection Agency's limits on carbon emissions from power plants.
On the Affordable Care Act, Republicans are wary of Obama's veto pen. But they could start the process of scaling back the law by watering down the employer mandate, reducing subsidy benefits to higher income people, and tackling Medicaid's overall financial weakness, which has been exacerbated by its expansion under the Affordable Care Act.
"It will be repeal, repeal, repeal and then once they've run up San Juan hill," Republicans will turn to proposals more likely to garner bipartisan support, said Thomas Scully, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in the George W. Bush administration and now a partner at a private equity firm.
Wresting control of the Senate is key. Without it, Republican-backed legislation will most likely continue to die on the desk of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada. Even with the GOP in control of the Senate, however, GOP bills would still face Democratic filibusters and presidential vetoes, big hurdles before becoming law. But a change in control could have a big impact on the congressional agenda and put pressure on Obama to play defense rather than seek ways to burnish his legacy.
"One very noticeable change if there's a leadership shift is that it will be harder for Democrats and the White House to block votes on bipartisan measures that, despite their bipartisan pedigrees, have been blocked in the Democrat-led Senate," said Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Stewart cited a bill to repeal the medical device tax as one example. "There are a LOT of things that can be done," he said. "Remember, Reid has blocked us from considering almost all of the House-passed legislation. A lot of jobs and energy bills passed with broad support, [garnering] 300 to 400 votes, that are collecting dust over here."
Energy issues — such as EPA limits on greenhouse gases and a measure to approve the long-pending application for the Keystone XL oil pipeline — offer other opportunities, Stewart said, because some Democrats could side with Republicans. GOP leaders might also turn toward expanding drilling on federal lands, speeding up permits for gas exports, and lifting the ban on crude oil exports.
"As to the president's EPA regulations, there is bipartisan opposition, but again, votes on that have been blocked," Stewart added. "We haven't had a real energy debate in the Senate in seven years. Keystone, like most of the bipartisan energy bills that have been blocked, has wide support, but Reid has been acting like a veto."
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said he doesn't believe the GOP will win the Senate, but if they did he said he expects they would try to block carbon pollution rules and executive actions Obama might take on immigration. "Most of what I see would be a negative agenda," Van Hollen said, "trying to stop the president from doing things through executive authority." He added, "then the question is whether they can put together a positive agenda. They're talking a good game." But he predicted that if they followed through on their own budget proposals they would face a "heck of a backlash."
Robert Dillon, spokesman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Arkansas, who would become chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said that she would like to see legislation that would, for example, open up the Alaska Natural Wildlife Refuge, but she recognizes it would never become law. Instead, Dillon said, she would she would probably first promote an energy efficiency bill that had considerable bipartisan support early this year and one dealing with interim storage for waste from nuclear power plants. These were measures that already have been supported by a majority of the committee, he said.
In the end, however, the Republican plan for next year isn't about congressional harmony but is mainly aimed at discrediting the Obama record, defining a new conservative vision, and building an appealing Republican platform for the 2016 presidential election.
Brooks, the AEI president, has a long list of issues he thinks Republicans could champion beyond healthcare and energy in coming years: relocation tax credits, expanding the earned income tax credit instead of raising the minimum wage, liberalizing laws on health care spending accounts and more to help working Americans.
All that, he said, could be part of forging a new conservative agenda built on "fighting tyranny" and helping "people left behind," stealing some of the Democrats' thunder at home. Republicans, he said, "have to not fall prey to the premise that they are fighting against the president's bad policies." He added, "Republicans want to set themselves up to have the White House in 2016."
"Don't fight against Obamacare. Fight for people who have been hurt by Obamacare," Brooks said. He said the party could focus, for example, on "making sure that catastrophic insurance is for everybody and that there is a sliding scale if you can't afford it. You don't need toupee insurance in Ohio."
It sounds a lot like a campaign platform.
Until the White House is captured, "there's only so much they can do," Brooks said of GOP lawmakers. "They can propose a lot more if have both houses of Congress, but . . . the Republicans shouldn't convince themselves that somehow everything is going to get turned around."
Pushing aggressive new positions — framed not as opposition but as new ideas — will be key to taking the White House, Republicans say.
"Is the purpose to define the direction of the country or to oppose Obama over his last two years?" says David Winston, a Republican pollster and consultant. "We're seeing a growing consensus that if things are going to work out in the long run — and in 2016 — it has to be about defining a direction."
Even now before the outcome of the mid-term elections, Winston said that the most important thing is to look toward the 2016 election.
"The one definitive thing you can say is that in 2016 there will be a new president," he said. "As we look at the last two years of the Obama presidency, the challenge is really defining where the country goes in a post-Obama environment."