The Republican governor of Utah on Monday said his party is blighted by leaders in Congress whose lack of new ideas renders them so "inconsequential" that he doesn't even bother to talk to them.
"I don't even know the congressional leadership," Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. told editors and reporters at The Washington Times, shrugging off questions about top congressional Republicans, including House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. "I have not met them. I don't listen or read whatever it is they say because it is inconsequential — completely."
In a separate interview at The Times, House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence, one of the party's chief message makers, said that Republican lawmakers have improved their standing with voters by attacking waste in the economic stimulus package even if rank-and-file Republicans can't agree to forgo earmarks - the pork-barrel spending projects despised by the electorate. Mr. Pence said such a move would benefit Americans and his party.
The back-and-forth underscored the leadership debate within their party. Mr. Huntsman called on national Republican leaders to show that they have alternatives and solutions, and Mr. Pence argued that congressional Republicans aren't as incompetent as they might appear.
"Is my party in Congress as far along as I would like to see us be? Probably not. But the contrast between our party that is having a thorough debate over how to change the way we spend the people's money and the other party, which is going on a spending spree and engaging in earmarking as usual, I think is the stark contrast," Mr. Pence said.
Unlike some of his Republican counterparts in other states, Mr. Huntsman said he will not turn back any of his state's share of President Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus. But he said much of the spending is misdirected and more likely to bloat the government than boost the economy.
He said congressional Republicans failed to score political points for opposing the bill — only three Republican senators supported it — because the public saw them as objecting to being shut out by Democrats from helping write the bill rather than as taking a principled stand.
The governor said congressional Republicans are being frustrated by a lack of credibility on the party's No. 1 tenet: fiscal responsibility.
"That's why no one is paying any attention," he said. "Our moral soapbox was completely taken away from us because of our behavior in the last few years. For us to now criticize analogous behavior is hypocrisy. We've got to come at it a different way. We've got to prove the point. It can't be as the Chinese would say, 'fei hua,' [or] empty words."
Mr. Huntsman, a U.S. ambassador to Singapore under President George H.W. Bush, speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese.
Mr. Pence said opposing the stimulus bill was the right decision and that Republicans have tried to come up with alternatives, such as their financial rescue alternative package last year and a counter to Democrats' stimulus plan that relied on tax cuts.
"My hope is that not only governors but everyday Americans will begin to realize in increasing measure that we're not just the party of 'no,' we're offering substantive alternatives," said Mr. Pence, who said Republicans have lost credibility on spending, though he pointed out that he had opposed big-government expansions such as President George W. Bush's Medicare prescription drug program.
Still, the Indiana Republican acknowledged that House Republicans still haven't come up with a unified position opposing pork-barrel spending.
"I believe that a conferencewide moratorium on earmarks would be in the interests of the American people and the interest of the Republican Party," Mr. Pence said.
After unilaterally swearing off earmark requests himself in 2008, Mr. Pence announced that he would do the same again in 2009 and 2010.
"My reason for that is not because I think members of Congress should forever be foreclosed from making requests, spending requests, large and small, but because I think this system is a disservice to the American people," he said.
Mr. Pence also took pains to distance himself from Mr. Bush's eight years in office, touting his opposition to the "Bush banking bailout" financial rescue plan.
"Americans fired [the] big-government Republicanism of George W. Bush," he said. "Big-government Republicanism is a failed political experiment."
Mr. Huntsman, who was in Washington for a meeting of governors, said the failure of Republican leaders in Congress to move beyond "gratuitous partisanship" has left it to the party's governors and other state officials to come up with "big, bold solutions and ideas" that will win over voters and revive the party.
"Until we get to that point, we are going to be sort of out there gasping for air, and that's were we are right now," he said.
"A good spirited debate is always important and always healthy, but right now, we are devoid of some of those big ideas that will allow us to become a governing party once again and allow us to win national elections," Mr. Huntsman said. "As one Republican governor still standing, I'm very mindful of this and I'm very mindful of the need to be part of the larger debate about coming up with real fixes and real solutions that the American people recognize as being good for them and their state and their country."
Instead of Republican legislators, Mr. Huntsman said, he turns to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to discuss ideas about health care, environment and energy policy.
"I had Newt Gingrich in my office a few weeks ago," Mr. Huntsman said. "What did we talk about? We didn't talk about how you harpoon the opposition through gratuitous rhetoric. It was health care … environment and energy reform. Real ideas."
Mr. Pence acknowledged an appetite for leadership among voters but said Republicans are well-positioned to fill that void.
Mr. Pence has been one of the chief sponsors behind a federal shield law to protect reporters from having to reveal their sources and said he thinks the bill can be signed into law under President Obama.
"We're feeling that there's a more amenable environment there," he said, predicting both 60 votes in the Senate — the threshold needed to more contentious bills — and the support of Mr. Obama and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.
On immigration, Mr. Pence said he still supports his own proposal that required illegal immigrants to leave the country and apply for a guest-worker plan from outside the U.S. He said that doing so would not preclude them from getting in line for a path to citizenship.