BALTIMORE — Far removed from last year’s celebratory victory lap, a humbled House Republican Conference has hunkered down for its annual policy retreat with a somber, businesslike tone, hoping to smooth the frayed tensions from last month’s payroll tax dispute.
The lawmakers, who are scheduled to meet over the course of three days at a harbor-front hotel in Charm City, are getting a nonstop dose of the same message: “Unity, unity, unity,” Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) said Friday morning.
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.
“We learned this year that progress must be more incremental than some of us would have liked. To implement our policies, we have a lot of work to do. To win this election, to implement our agenda, we’ve got to lay out our vision in a way that people understand. If we don’t, we all recognize what will happen,” Cantor said in a closed-door meeting, according to the notes of a Republican in the room.
With the year’s policy agenda still in flux, Boehner tried to refocus the conference on conducting vigorous oversight of the Obama administration, an area of legislative action that they can do without requiring Senate assent.
“The policies coming out of this White House — policies like Obamacare — are hurting our economy and making it harder for small businesses to create jobs,” Boehner said in his opening remarks, according to another Republican’s notes. “We have a responsibility to use our majority to shine a spotlight on those policies and demand accountability from this administration on behalf of the American people.”
Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, announced Friday that the State Department and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would send officials to a hearing next week on the proposed Keystone XL energy pipeline. In the payroll holiday extension Boehner pushed to require Obama to rule within 60 days whether to approve construction to begin on the pipeline, which would run from the Canadian border to the Gulf Coast. This week, Obama rejected the permit, saying the timeline was too tight to meet all environmental concerns.
“We will continue to pursue this at every angle,” Upton told reporters.
An emerging possibility for the pipeline legislation is the federal highway funding legislation, which expires at the end of March.
In the near term, however, Republicans must renew talks on a year-long extension of the payroll tax and other items. They are being coached, on this issue and others throughout the year, to stay on the same team.
“Let’s learn from our mistakes,” Terry said. “If we stay united, these things don’t happen.”