By Andy Sullivan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans in Congress may have dialed back their rhetoric, but that does not mean they are any more likely to yield to an unpopular Democratic president.
Coming off a bruising debt-ceiling debate that spooked investors, unnerved Americans and took the country to the edge of default, Republican leaders have promised to lower the temperature on Capitol Hill and try to work with President Barack Obama wherever possible.
But Republicans have little incentive to compromise on their small-government philosophy and the spending and tax issues that will dominate the agenda through the end of the year.
Obama's negative approval rating gives him little clout on Capitol Hill, and a surprise Republican victory in a New York special election Tuesday is seen by his opponents as a further repudiation of his policies.
Many of Obama's proposals to stimulate the economy and cut into a stubbornly high 9.1 percent unemployment rate also run counter to Republicans' small-government philosophy. Since unveiling his jobs plan last week, Obama has repeatedly exhorted Republicans to approve the $447 billion package.
Following the current Capitol Hill playbook, Republicans may be unwilling to give the president a victory as they gear up for elections in November 2012 that could hand them control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, said Ethan Siegal, of the public policy analysis firm The Washington Exchange.
"Their new post-summer recess strategy appears to be to smile and not look so harsh as they did during the debt ceiling debate, to look open to anything that President Obama might propose, but basically stick to their philosophical and political guns," Siegal said.
Republican leaders in the House of Representatives have said they share the president's goal of boosting employment but disagree with many of the methods he would use. Republicans have rejected many of the proposed measures and have ruled out the tax increases that Obama's wants to cover the cost.
WAIT FOR THE ELECTION
"Republicans and Democrats don't and aren't going to agree on everything," House Republican leader Eric Cantor said on Tuesday. "Maybe the issue of taxation, maybe some of these other issues, will have to be left for the election."
Republicans have plenty of reasons to feel confident about their electoral prospects.
Obama will be saddled by a sluggish economy and high unemployment, while Republicans are favored to retain control of the House and could easily win the Senate as well.
Swing voters, who could determine the outcome of next year's elections, see themselves as more in tune ideologically with Republicans than Democrats, according to a poll released Tuesday by the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way. They also gave Republicans higher marks for deficit reduction, a top priority for Americans.
Republican leaders are doubtless aware of Congress' rock-bottom approval ratings in the wake of the debt-limit crisis as Americans worry whether both parties can work together to avert another recession.
That could mean a smoother path for the routine legislation that was shunted aside during the debt-ceiling fight.
The Senate's top Republican, Mitch McConnell, said on Tuesday he thought Congress would not allow money for airport construction projects to lapse again, as it did in August.
Cantor said Monday he was not inclined to provoke a confrontation over a spending bill that ensures the government can continue functioning beyond September 30. A battle over a similar bill in April took the government to the brink of a shutdown.
Republicans have also said that budget concerns will not hold up disaster aid for victims of Hurricane Irene and other recent catastrophes, though the two parties remain at odds over how quickly Congress must approve that money, and whether it should be offset with spending cuts to avoid deepening the country's fiscal woes.
But a divided Congress may have trouble passing even relatively noncontroversial legislation as the election nears, one analyst said.
"I just don't think there's a lot of trust or interest in cooperation. It's basically punting it back to the voters and saying, 'pick one (party) and we'll go from there,'" said Brian Gardner, a Washington analyst with Keefe, Bruyette & Woods.
(Editing by Vicki Allen)