Last January’s policy retreat came on the heels of the historic 2010 midterm elections that thrust Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) into the speaker’s chair and swept in 87 GOP freshmen. That retreat brought the most important figures in the Republican Party — including two future presidential contenders, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former speaker Newt Gingrich, and another who considered running, then-Gov. Haley Barbour (Miss.) — to offer wisdom and to court the new lawmakers.
This weekend, the Republican spotlight is firmly fixed on South Carolina, where Gingrich is waging an intense battle to defeat former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and prolong the GOP presidential contest deeper into the year. No candidates are here to talk to the House Republicans.
Instead, the lawmakers are hearing lectures from the GOP leadership team, top Republican strategists and even former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs. The only national Republican figure who will appear is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a prominent Romney surrogate.
But Christie, in his Friday night talk, is expected to focus on his own budget battles in New Jersey’s divided government — a theme likely to resonate among Republicans here after the 2011 fiscal disputes with President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).
“Last year was festive. It was all new and shiny,” Terry said, explaining the giddy optimism of the 2011 retreat. “This is much more down to business. This is much more serious.”
Lawmakers said that the feelings were still a bit raw from the December battle over the two-month extension of the payroll tax holiday, accompanied by a similar extension for unemployment benefits and a measure to maintain the level of Medicare payments to doctors. After the Senate approved that temporary extension, Boehner faced a rebellion among his rank-and-file Republicans, who demanded that a full-year plan be approved.
Obama and Democrats painted the House Republicans as obstructionists who were on the verge of blocking a middle-class tax cut — averaging about $40 per biweekly paycheck — around the holiday season. Senate Republicans abandoned their House counterparts, arguing that the best political move was to just pass the temporary plan and regroup this year. After some infighting among his leadership team, Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric I. Cantor (R-Va.), along with Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), agreed to approve the short-term measure.
It was the final compromise in a year that was filled with half measures, from a government funding showdown last spring to the summer-long debate on raising the debt ceiling. On Thursday, as the retreat opened at the Marriott Waterfront, Cantor tried to set the tone for the expectations in the year ahead and to remind the rank-and-file that the end goal centered on winning the November elections.