Analysis-U.S. House Republicans favor message over substance in early legislation

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans who control the U.S. House of Representatives wasted no time this week using their new majority to pass political messaging bills that appeal to conservative voters on hot-button issues, but often involved more hyperbole than substance.

After a historic struggle to elect Kevin McCarthy as their speaker, House Republicans used their first legislative week to pass bills on taxes, abortion and energy security that have little to no chance of getting through the Democratic-controlled Senate or being signed into law by Democratic President Joe Biden.

The bills are meant to provide a political benefit, as Republicans seek to fulfill 2022 campaign promises and formulate plans to capture the Senate and White House in 2024.

"The American public made a decision, where they fired the Democrats and they put us in charge," McCarthy told reporters.

"We continue to keep that commitment," he said. "You'll watch it week after week after week."

Republicans also set up committees to investigate Biden's Justice Department and scrutinize U.S.-China competition.

The use of messaging bills is an age-old tactic embraced by Republicans and Democrats alike. In the run-up to the November midterm elections, House Democrats approved legislation on abortion rights and election reform, knowing the bills would never pass the narrowly split Senate.

Democrats characterized the legislation as an effort to protect the wealthy, obstruct federal probes of Republican former President Donald Trump and restrict abortion access.

"That's this week in extreme MAGA-Republican land," said House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries.

Messaging bills could play a central role as the Republican Party girds itself for political showdowns over spending and the debt ceiling.

"The real purpose for the House Republican conference is to hold down spending and try to limit the debt," said Republican strategist Charles Black. "All that's going to take negotiations with the Senate and the White House."

"But I suspect that they feel the best way to negotiate is to take a hard-line position and pass it through the House before you go negotiate," he added.

IRS, CHINA, ABORTION

The week began with Republicans taking aim at Democratic funding for the Internal Revenue Service intended to help reclaim an estimated $500 billion in annual unclaimed taxes.

The House, in a party-line vote, passed a bill to rescind $72 billion in new IRS funding last year, which No. 2 House Republican Steve Scalise said would target people earning less than $400,000 and break Biden's promise not to raise taxes on that income group.

The claim, repeated widely by Republicans, was based on a Congressional Budget Office report that reached the opposite conclusion, saying audit rates for taxpayers with income less than $400,000 would actually remain close to recent levels.

Also missing from Republican rhetoric was a separate CBO finding that said their bill would add more than $114 billion to the federal deficit.

On Thursday, 113 Democrats joined Republicans in voting on a bill that sponsors said would ban sales of oil to Beijing from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve, even though oil experts said it would have little effect.

The bill is part of a larger strategy by Republicans to blame Democratic "green" energy policies for higher U.S. gasoline prices and to accuse Biden of trying to compensate by draining the nation's emergency oil reserve and selling some of it China.

In March, Biden announced a record sale of 180 million barrels from the reserve.

Chinese buyers purchased some of the SPR oil directly and more found its way to China through the global market.

Industry experts said the restrictions were unlikely to stop oil from reaching China on the global market.

"They can establish who the designated buyers are. But they can't follow where the barrels go after that," said Kevin Book, an analyst at the nonpartisan, Washington-based research group ClearView Energy Partners LLC.

The legislation also does not address U.S. oil industry exports to China, which dwarf SPR volumes as a result of 2015 reforms that Republicans supported.

Another Republican messaging bill sought to protect the welfare of infants born during abortion procedures, a rare occurrence that experts say legislators have long used to underscore their opposition to abortion.

Experts say there are no reliable statistics on so-called born-alive abortions. Data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that fewer than 1% of abortions in 2020 took place after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

After the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to overturn national abortion rights mobilized female voters against Republicans in November, the abortion birth legislation came under fire from within the party.

"We're only playing lip service to the pro-life movement," said Representative Nancy Mace of South Carolina, who advocated instead for expanded access to birth control but still voted for the bill.

(Reporting by David Morgan; additional reporting by Timothy Gardner, Richard Cowan and Gabriella Borter; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)