Mitt Romney's transition team -- dubbed the "Readiness Project" -- has stepped up its activities as the nominee has surged in the polls, planning a series of modest but quick accomplishments should he win and bracing for the likelihood Romney would butt heads with House Republicans as he seeks a fiscal "grand bargain."
The team is plotting out a delicate exercise of power for a possible President Romney -- wanting to show speedy action to improve the economy while taking pains to avoid over-promising, given the narrow margins Republicans will enjoy in Congress, even if they take back the Senate.
The difference would be felt most immediately and acutely on health reform. Romney's repeated promise to "repeal Obamacare" is sure to be curtailed, even with a Republican Senate, his advisers admit. One official said that under a Democratic Senate, "we would just have to try to grind out changes by starving Obamacare through regulations."
"In the campaign, there's a lot of bravado about jamming things down people's throats," a Romney official said. "But that's not really Romney. That's not his style. He's a pragmatist."
Working with government-issued emails and office space on C Street Southwest, Romney's team is calling its opening legislative agenda a "200-day plan," rather than the storied 100-day lingo of President John F. Kennedy, because the current toxic climate makes it too tough to promise much in only three months, aides say.
The aides and advisers insisted on confidentiality because they wanted to avoid seeming presumptuous and don't want to be seen as measuring the drapes, even though that is the precise mandate of the transition crew.
One Republican official who talks frequently to top campaign aides said Romney doesn't plan "an ideological crusade -- he wants to come across as a problem solver, primarily on the economic side."
"That's very different from [George W.] Bush in '01," the Republican official said. "Everything Romney does is going to be focused on bringing down barriers to economic growth and providing certainty to businesses on taxes and regulation. He realizes that until you do that, you can't make a lot of sweeping, revolutionary changes."
Already, Romney aides know they have promised more than they can pull off. Talk of immigration reform in the first year -- a Romney promise from the second presidential debate -- caused aides to roll their eyes.
Conservatives do expect Romney to make a handful of changes by executive decree in the first 48 hours if he is elected president, however. Among them: Re-implementing the "Mexico City policy" that prohibits federally funded nongovernmental organizations from promoting or performing abortions and issuing waivers to states that don't want to participate in elements of the Affordable Care Act.
One of the biggest worries for a Romney administration, according to the aides, will be keeping conservative lawmakers happy when the most urgent task, dealing with the nation's fiscal emergency, is going to immediately alienate the loud, powerful wing of House Republicans that is resistant to raising revenues, even though their leaders recognize it is a mathematical necessity.
That would be the most urgent task for a Vice President Paul Ryan, who has credibility with the tea party wing of House Republicans from his stint as a reformist House Budget Committee chairman.
"We're going to come in and need to be able to do a lot of things that aren't easy to do," the official said. "Ryan is going to have to help keep the conservatives at bay and on the field. Some of them are going to expect us to come in and do a lot of things that we aren't going to be able to do."
Romney aides and House and Senate Republican leaders agree that the strategy during the lame-duck session between Election Day and the end of the year would be to buy as much time as possible, pushing for extensions of six months to a year as both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue scramble to avoid going off the fiscal cliff.
"Our preference would be a push for a one-year extension on the tax side and use '13 for the Romney administration to lay out their vision and push for tax reform," said a senior Senate GOP aide. On the defense sequester, the aide said, there's a belief in leadership circles that Republicans and Democrats can find a way to replace the early months of mandated spending cuts. Democrats, including the president, have also expressed optimism about that, but there's still an impasse over whether tax increases would be part of the mix.
Only a few weeks ago, Romney's large transition staff seemed -- even to many of the participants -- to be engaged in a bit of an exercise in make-believe.
If the nominee is down in nearly every swing state, some participants recalled, it's harder to muster gusto for gaming out when to use budget reconciliation as part of the legislative strategy or for preparing long dossiers on potential nominees.
Now that Romney has pulled within striking distance nearly everywhere, the Readiness Project is being flooded with calls and emails from Republicans around Washington who are suddenly eager to be helpful, according to top Romney aides.
"Now, we're shooting with real bullets," a Romney adviser said. "We're already ready to merge the campaign with the transition."
Romney, as part of the CEO mind-set that he has vowed to bring to the West Wing, has put more time and thought into building his potential government than has been typical for presidential candidates.
Each Monday, often on the road, he shuts out his campaign staff and meets with the confidant who is heading his transition and is likely to be his White House chief of staff -- Mike Leavitt, the former Utah governor and secretary of Health and Human Services.
Romney advisers say that unlike the campaign headquarters in Boston, which has a variety of power centers, Leavitt would be given unquestioned authority. Top Romney aides say they have studied the opening months and moves by Bush and President Barack Obama, and are building a government designed to avoid their mistakes.
Many of the Romney plans remain vague because aides do not yet know whether he will be dealing with a Republican Senate, which would vastly increase his horizons, or whether Democrats will retain the majority, which would badly constrict his running room.
Shortly after the Nov. 6 election, for instance, a President-elect Romney would begin reaching out to House and Senate Democrats for discussions about challenges facing the economy as the opening step in trying to figure out a grand bargain to reform taxes and entitlements.
"The one thing you can learn from Obama," said a top Republican aide on Capitol Hill, "is that he had virtually no relationships up here, and that really hurt him. The Romney folks are very conscious of that."
Short-term solutions to the fiscal cliff issues would give Romney breathing room to focus on his priority, which will be getting a bipartisan budget through Congress so that he can outline early spending cuts and try to use the filibuster-proof reconciliation process to rewrite the Tax Code and dump much of the Affordable Care Act. Romney has been aware of the importance of reconciliation since at least the early part of this year, and some say it's a big part of the reason he chose budget expert Ryan as his No. 2.
Ryan is also seen as the key liaison between Romney and the Hill because of his knowledge of the fundamentals of budgeting. "Paul Ryan understands the appropriations process, the role of reconciliation and how to accomplish a new president's objectives," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a top Romney ally and critical link to conservatives on the Hill. "It's Paul Ryan's mastery of the process that will make a major difference for a newly elected president."
But there are others who will be important if there's a Romney transition. It was Drew Maloney, a K Street veteran, who sat in the basement of Tortilla Coast on Capitol Hill with Romney months and months ago as he met with small groups of House Republicans over bacon and eggs to recruit supporters. Maloney is considered a front-runner to head up the White House's legislative affairs shop if Romney is elected.
Knowing what Romney wants to do to the health care law, there's little chance Sen. Harry Reid would bring a budget to the floor if he's still majority leader next year. But if Republicans win control of the Senate, they'll need just 50 votes to get the ball rolling on reconciliation.
Romney's transition team already has been working behind the scenes to set things up for their candidate, should he win the job. Over the summer, Leavitt met with House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy's deputy whips to outline what the first 200 days would look like, but GOP sources said little about the contents of the discussion.
And in July, Leavitt and the Romney transition staff pushed hard for the House to pass a Senate bill that would take about 170 executive-branch positions out of the pool of jobs requiring Senate confirmation. Though many conservatives were wary of giving more power to the president -- Obama, in particular -- House leaders went to work on their caucus and flipped enough votes to get the bill to the president's desk. Obama signed it into law during the August recess.
The appointment of aides, from members of his Cabinet to press secretaries at minor agencies, is one of the first ways in which Romney would begin to make his mark on the government, and it is a power his allies regard as particularly important to the early success of a Romney presidency. House Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor and McCarthy "did some heavy lifting," according to a source who favored the bill.
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