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Cantor's Rebranding Effort Tested By House Republicans

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When the House votes Wednesday on a bill called the Working Families Flexibility Act, it will be the latest test of a Republican effort at rebranding.

The architect of that effort in the House, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., has so far had a mixed record.

In February, Cantor gave a major policy speech at the American Enterprise Institute. His pitch: The Republican Party needed to broaden its message beyond the fiscal fights of the past two years.

"Our House majority will pursue an agenda that is based on a shared vision of creating the conditions of health, happiness and prosperity for more Americans and their families," he said.

Cantor calls that agenda Making Life Work. Others call it an effort to win over women and minorities who favored Democrats in the 2012 election.

But, at least initially, some in Cantor's party seem to be working against this effort. Two weeks after his speech, a majority of House Republicans voted against reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, something that in the past had been an easy vote. There was the House Republican who used a racial slur to refer to immigrants from Mexico. And most recently, Cantor had to pull a health care bill included in the Making Life Work agenda from the floor because it didn't have enough Republican votes to pass.

But he seems undeterred.

Cantor and a handful of his Republican colleagues traveled Tuesday to a Northern Virginia suburb to promote the Working Families Flexibility Act of 2013. There, they assembled a small group of business owners and working mothers.

The bill would allow private employers to offer hourly workers comp time instead of overtime if they work more than 40 hours a week. Instead of extra pay, they would get extra paid time off at some later date.

"Working moms and dads, American families, need flexibility so that they can balance the workplace and home," says the bill's lead author, Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., who is a mother of two young children.

Democrats, labor leaders and labor economists like Eileen Appelbaum at the Center for Economic and Policy Research say it's more about giving employers a way out of strict overtime rules. Appelbaum says workers would be asked to forgo overtime pay for time off that may not come when they really need it.

"Let's say you have a sick child," Appelbaum says. "You call your employer and the employer says, 'Well, sorry, I can't really give it to you today, but how about if you take it next week?' Well, that's not very helpful."

Appelbaum is used to making these arguments because it turns out House Republicans have been pushing the same bill for years.

House Speaker John Boehner, then a relatively new member of Congress, spoke in favor of the bill when it was the Working Families Flexibility Act of 1997.

"The workforce today is very different than it was in the 1930s when the law that we're amending was put in place," he said at the time.

The bill passed the House on a largely party-line vote and died when the Senate never took it up. It is likely to face a similar fate this time. At the moment, it doesn't even have a sponsor in the Senate.

Jack Pitney, a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College, says this vote is about sending a message to voters.

"It's an effort to take an idea that's been around for a long time and make it part of a broader agenda to show that Republicans are trying to think creatively and trying to achieve liberal ends through conservative means," Pitney says.

But when asked how this fits into his Making Life Work agenda and how that agenda is working out, Cantor looked to the mothers invited to the roundtable.

"I would ask each and every one of these working individuals, working Americans, whether they even care about remaking a political party," he said. "What they care about is making sure that their life works."

Whether Cantor's Making Life Work plan works won't really be clear until the congressional elections of 2014.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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