House Speaker John A. Boehner called for party unity at a Republican retreat. (Chip Somodevilla, Getty…)
Reporting from Baltimore
A former plastics salesman, House Speaker John A. Boehner stood before the unwieldy GOP majority with a pitch: Members must stick together like never before, not only for the sake of their agenda in Congress, but for the larger prize of reclaiming the White House this fall.
It was a complicated sell at the GOP's annual retreat here as Boehner faced rambunctious lawmakers still intent on changing how Washington does business. Though Republicans said they were humbled and frustrated by last year's bruising political warfare, some in the tea-party-powered majority are ready to go at it again.
Boehner appealed to a higher cause, one that places the spoils of the campaign season at the forefront of a new strategy, seeking to leave behind the constant legislative skirmishes that defined days past.
This is "our chance to actually put a new government in power that can begin to implement the policies and reforms we know are truly needed to put our country back on track," Boehner said behind closed doors at the Waterfront Marriott, according to a person in the room who requested anonymity to discuss the private session.
This year "will be a referendum on the president's policies and we must use every resource at our disposal to drive that referendum," Boehner said. "We spent most of 2011 churning out jobs bills and sending them over to the Senate, and we're going to continue to do that in 2012."
But Boehner told his caucus that the GOP also had "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."
With the White House in the GOP's sights and the chance to flip the Senate to Republican control, the underlying message to the rabble-rousers among them was clear: Don't blow this opportunity.
"Every leader from Boehner down … talked about unity and working together," said veteran Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.). "Unity, unity, unity."
Was it working? "We'll see," Terry said.
Campaigning is always an easier lift than governing, and much of the GOP agenda this year is likely to provide more bumper-sticker slogans than new laws because areas of compromise with the Senate remain slim.
Republicans are doubling down on a legislative agenda that resembles last year's efforts to shrink the size and scope of government, and Obama is prepared to exploit a lack of legislative accomplishments as he runs against a so-called "do-nothing" Congress.
Asking the rank and file to put aside personal political pursuits for the sake of GOP success on election day provides Boehner with an attractive strategy that could have some appeal to even the hardest chargers under his watch.
And it may be an easier script for newer lawmakers to follow after a year of party battles — most notably, the year-end payroll tax cut showdown pushed by conservatives — that allowed Democrats to portray the GOP as extreme.
But the dynamics of leading a large, fractured majority remain unchanged, and Boehner retains as slippery a grip as ever.
As one example, conservative Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) hurried from the closed sessions Friday to distribute his alternative budget proposals, even as the party's budget chairman, Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, was holding a news conference down the hall.
No surprise, then, that the likes of popular Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and former NFL coach Joe Gibbs were brought to the "Congress of Tomorrow" retreat to wow the ranks and motivate the House Republicans to operate as a team.
Even Rohrabacher, a congressman known for breaking from the pack, suggested that one "way of getting people together, of course, is to target a common enemy and go for it." He described GOP unity in the House as strong.
"Everybody's ready for action," Rohrabacher said. "We are in the battle for our lives and our country, and I think that we are all convinced the America that we know is in jeopardy if President Obama is reelected and if the Congress ends up under the control of President Obama and the Democrats who think like him."
Away from the demands of Washington, Boehner's pitch appeared to gain traction. More than half of the GOP lawmakers showed up for the retreat, even though they noted that the festive atmosphere of last year, their first in the majority, had worn away as their own reelection battles came into view.
Majority Leader Eric Cantor, according to an aide familiar with his comments in a private session, said that Republicans had learned "that progress must be more incremental than some of us would have liked.… 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."