BY BYRON YORK
There was a lot to talk about when House Speaker John Boehner appeared before reporters recently for the first time since the holiday break. There are continuing fights over Obamacare. Immigration reform. Appropriations bills. The debt ceiling. The Democratic push for the president's "inequality agenda."
Given all that, what did Boehner say in his brief remarks? "Our focus will continue to be on jobs."
"All during the break, I kept hearing from people that they wanted us to focus on the economy," Boehner explained. "The American people are still asking the question: Where are the jobs?"
Indeed they are; there are a zillion polls that prove it. And for Republicans, who aim to keep the House and win control of the Senate, the biggest 2014 challenge will be to keep their own focus on jobs amid all the other distractions of a hotly contested election year.
The House GOP leadership met at a retreat on Maryland's Eastern Shore recently -- as it turns out, right after another dismal jobs report was released. Boehner and other top GOP officials are working on a jobs agenda for the coming year, which they will present to the 232 members of the House Republican conference at another retreat later this month.
It's customary for the leaders to look at poll data on what issues Americans think are most important in deciding how they will vote for Congress. In a just-completed survey that will be part of this weekend's discussion, the top issue is -- no surprise -- jobs and the economy, named by 42 percent of respondents. Other issues are far behind -- health care, at 10 percent; education, at 9 percent; and federal spending and the deficit, also at 9 percent. The public's priorities are pretty clear.
In his news conference, Boehner pointed to "dozens" of jobs-related bills the House has passed that have been bottled up by the Senate's Democratic leaders. Indeed, there have been many.
The largest group of bills, 13 in all, deal with energy: The Northern Route Approval Act (about the Keystone XL Pipeline). The Offshore Energy and Jobs Act. The Protecting States' Rights to Promote American Energy Security Act. The Natural Gas Pipeline Permitting Reform Act. And more.
On other issues, there is the Innovation Act. The Small Business Capital Access and Job Preservation Act. The Working Families Flexibility Act. The Water Resources Reform and Development Act. And still more.
All have gone nowhere in divided Washington. But now, Hill Republicans believe they have a new opportunity to make progress. The disastrous rollout of Obamacare, they say, has not only reduced the public's faith in Obama's ability to handle health care issues. It has also reduced the public's faith in the president overall, and has in addition made voters increasingly likely to view Obama more as a cause of the country's problems than a solution.
"This is a broad reassessment," said a plugged-in Republican strategist. "Now the electorate is really open to hearing alternatives. And that puts Republicans in a remarkably enviable position for a political party, which is the country wants to hear what they have to say."
And what House Republicans will have to say will be about jobs. That doesn't mean they won't talk about Obamacare -- the system's already serious problems, should they become acute in coming months, could demand action, in addition to being a winning issue for the GOP. It also doesn't mean they can't talk about spending, a perennial concern of the party's base.
But it means the main focus will continue to be jobs.
Not only is unemployment still high, but the nation's workforce participation rate has fallen to alarming levels as millions of unemployed and discouraged workers give up hope of ever finding a job. And millions more are underemployed, treading water in low-paying jobs they would never take if they had something better.
So many things happen every day that can distract the attention of lawmakers. At the Boehner press conference last Thursday, one reporter asked the speaker's thoughts on the Chris Christie bridge matter. Another asked about growing troubles in Iraq. Yet another asked about immigration.
They're all interesting topics, and some are even in the purview of the speaker of the House. But when it comes to the public's concerns, Boehner appears determined to remember that the big question in 2014 is the same as it was in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013: Where are the jobs?