BALTIMORE — House Republicans wrapped up their retreat here Saturday by vowing to avoid the infighting that often derailed their messaging in 2011 and to draw stark contrasts between themselves and Democrats.
Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) had hoped the Charm City confab would help heal the wounds from December’s payroll tax cut fight while putting their Conference on a unified path going into the 2012 elections.
On Saturday at least, Republicans sang from the same page.
“This is the most focused and serious-minded retreat I can remember being part of,” Boehner told his colleagues during a final session Saturday morning, according to a Republican in attendance.
“2012 will be a referendum on the president’s failed policies, and we need to use every tool at our disposal this year to drive that referendum,” he added.
Rank-and-file Members agreed, emerging from the three-day retreat in an upbeat mood.
“Look, we’re a group of individuals. ... That’s why the American people are so excited about this freshman class,” Rep. Raul Labrador (Idaho) said, explaining that despite differences of opinions, “we are definitely united.” He said Republicans will draw distinctions between themselves and President Barack Obama and Democrats, particularly in the Senate.
Rep. Steve Scalise said leaders are open about where they can improve.
“I think they’ve shown they’re open to listening and getting better. Where there have been problems, they’ve been willing to acknowledge that,” the Louisiana Republican said. “I think that’s a positive sign that our leadership is open to admit where they can do better, and they’re working to keep getting better.”
Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.) said that although Republicans may not be able to single-handedly enact big-ticket legislation, “the least we can do if we don’t like the direction the president is taking the country — which we don’t — is show the country what we would do, how we think we should fix these problems.”
To that end, leaders used the retreat to sketch an agenda that they hope will provide a platform for making a distinction between Republicans and Democrats.
For instance, on Friday, Cantor said Republicans will pursue tax and budget reforms as well as highway and energy legislation during 2012, and he indicated they could even wade back into the fight over the Affordable Care Act.
“I could also see us trying to make the case again for the repeal of Obamacare. Most of the people are with us in the country. And you’re going to have the external events of oral arguments in the Supreme Court, you’re going to have at some point the disposition of that case,” he said.
“I think [it] makes it very timely for the public to understand that if Republicans are given the White House and we control Congress, we’re going to do everything we can to do away with Obamacare,” Cantor added.
Boehner also made clear that he plans to use the House’s oversight functions more aggressively this year to hammer the administration and push the GOP line.
“Our obligation is to use our majority to shine a spotlight on the places where the president’s failed policies are getting in the way of American job creation. And that means stepped-up oversight of the Obama administration’s policies,” he told Republicans on Saturday.
Leaders are also hoping this year’s schedule, which theoretically should not involve as many government shutdown fights, will help keep Members in line.
“It’s a much different landscape this year than last year,” Cantor said.
“I am much more confident this year that you’re not going to be in a reactive mode the way you were last year” because of the debt ceiling and repeated spending fights, he added.
Cantor also predicted there would be no government shutdown fights this year.
“We’re not going to have one this year. We’re not going to have a government shutdown,” he said. “Thirty days out [from the election] ,,, people don’t want to see a shutdown.”
Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (Ky.) indicated he would look to quickly move through the chamber spending measures to avoid a September battle over keeping the government funded.
“On appropriations, we’re going to go all-out early,” Rogers said Saturday.
Still, it remains unclear how successful Boehner and Cantor will be in suppressing their Conference’s desire for ugly brawls with the administration.
One rank-and-file Member said the negotiations on the payroll tax cut extension could spark a new round of internal fighting, noting that although it was calm now, “it’s because it’s not in our laps yet.”
And even during a largely feel-good weekend, there were those expressing concern with the direction of the Conference.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher used the retreat to push some off-topic proposals. In a rare unscripted moment, the California Republican blitzed the media filing room unannounced to tout his pamphlet of “creative ideas,” such as commercializing space travel — plans that he said weren’t being given a hearing given the top-down structure of the retreat.
“A lot of the issues we face are budget-related, so they tend to be discussions on how money is spent, not on how we can restructure the way we do things in a creative way and that can capture the imagination of the people,” he said.
Still, he acknowledged the importance of consistency in the Conference and said he has “never seen it more unified than this.”
“The way to get people together is to target a common enemy and go for it,” Rohrabacher said.