House Republicans aren’t looking for another bloody battle on the payroll tax. They don’t think it’s worth stepping into the ring with President Barack Obama during his 2012 crusade against Congress.
But they are willing to fight each other — over policy, strategy and leadership.
A year to the day since Ohio’s John Boehner
and 87 eager freshmen took Washington by storm, House Republicans are
bruised from battle, irritated with each other and have lost trust in
The president whose agenda they came to Washington to stop is vowing
to spend the year scoring political points against Republicans now, and
they don’t have much leverage against him.
Now, they’re trying to figure out how to revamp their agenda to find
much needed political and policy victories in advance of the November
But the first few weeks of 2012 are brimming with issues that could trip up the GOP majority.
House Republicans first have to deal with a yearlong payroll tax
extension, and they’re already promising to be flexible in the quest to
get it out of the way. They’re almost certain to run into fiery
conservative lawmakers still angry over the short term bill GOP leaders
jammed through Congress before Christmas.
They’ll also have to contend with a growing deficit of trust between
the rank and file and leadership — something that’s expected to come to a
head at the party’s retreat in Baltimore later this month.
All told, the House Republicans are going into 2012 weaker and more
divided than when they took control of the chamber a year ago.
On top of distrust, there’s a healthy degree of discomfort within the
242-member House Republican Conference with the party’s jobs agenda and
messaging. Some are itching for an election-year reboot.
“Leadership’s gotta get the Republicans fighting for something, in
terms of a positive agenda,” said Colorado Rep. Cory Gardner, voicing
concerns of several Republicans interviewed by POLITICO this week. “We
need to fight for specific ideas of job creation.
“So much of what we did last year was negative inference: We will
stop this rule, and therefore create jobs. That’s true, and those are
good ideas, but sometimes they’re hard to translate to the American
people that we’re for something,” Gardner said. “I think we need a
positive jobs agenda that goes out and says ‘Hey, here’s our package for
small business’ — a proactive agenda to give the Republicans in the
House something to fight for and push back on this president.”
That message was evident in conversations with more than a dozen aides, lawmakers and strategists in the party.
“It’s time to pick a fight on our own terms, and on policies we are
about, and if we do that, we’ll be on sure footing going into this
presidential election,” Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) said.
On top of that, they’ll have to recalibrate their message again this year to jibe with the Republican nominee.
Many GOP insiders believe they should avoid a full confrontation with
a president looking to pick another fight with an unpopular Congress.
“When somebody’s trying to pick a fight with you it’s usually smart
to avoid it,” said Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, a former member of Republican
leadership. “They’re trying to pick the fight because they think they
can win it. My experience is they’re usually right.”
But as Republicans in the rank and file brood and
bark about who is responsible for the December payroll debacle — the
party’s biggest setback since taking power — GOP leadership is looking
for an issue to latch onto that would add some substance to a normally
light legislative year. Top GOP leadership aides met in the quiet
Capitol this week to discuss agenda items to show they’re working on a
economically focused agenda. Conversations have increasingly turned to
launching a comprehensive reform of the nation’s tax code.
Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), in an interview, said he wants
to concentrate on “the most important issue facing the people that sent
us to Washington, and that is how do we help small businesses create
“I think last year showed us where sort of the differences lie
between the two sides and hopefully we could use the knowledge gained
there to focus on progress that we can make over the next 10 months
leading up to the election,” Cantor said in an interview with POLITICO
Boehner was not made available for an interview for this story.
House Democrats take a different view of the last year.
“Just think, this year, take me back to the fact that it’s one year
since they were sworn in as the majority, one year without any major
jobs initiatives, any jobs agenda,” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi
(D-Calif.) said Thursday. “Starting the year with the [Wisconsin Rep.
Paul] Ryan budget, … which broke the guarantee for Medicare, which did
not create jobs and which did not reduce the deficit.”
Cantor has the first part of 2012 mapped out already.
In the opening weeks of the session — there are 20 days in session in
the first two months — Republicans will have to find a deal on the
full-year payroll tax-cut extension. They will seek to extend the
Federal Aviation Administration’s funding, in addition to moving forward
on Boehner’s highway and energy bill. Cantor will also try to pass an
amended version of the Stock Act, which seeks to prohibit members of
Congress from profiting while serving in elective office.
They say not engaging with Obama — instead, legislating while the
president is campaigning — is a winning political strategy. Republican
thinking is that it’s a bad argument for Obama to say you can’t work
with the nation’s elected officials.
“The president has made very clear that he really doesn’t want to
work and engage in a lot of policy discussion and instead will choose to
campaign for the rest of the year,” Cantor said. “And I think where
we’ll be focused is on how we can help people with the challenges that
they face economically, but most importantly, how we can effect small
businesses creating more jobs. Hopefully the president will work with us
in doing that. If not, hopefully we could see a way to work together to
produce that kind of result.”
First up, though, is the payroll fight, which will have to wrap up by
the end of February, when taxes are slated to go up on more than 100
million Americans. At this point, Republicans seem eager to compromise
and avoid a reprise of the fight they lost in December.
Cantor said he hopes Congress can “dispense with
[this debate],” adding that he was always for a yearlong extension and
the two sides were “not far apart at the end when everything fell
In short, they want to wrap it up quickly.
“Engaging further on the payroll tax cuts is not worth our while,”
said Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston, a conservative who has served in the
House since 1992. “We need to shift to where we are a lot stronger …
when we asked ‘where are the jobs?’”
To that end, there’s going to be a push from Republicans to go big —
grab hold of a large-scale legislative issue such as tax code reform.
“If we do the big things, that in normal times are heavy lifting, they’re the best things for us to do right now,” McHenry said.
That’s about all Republicans agree on these days.
Around the leadership circle — comprising Boehner, Cantor, Whip Kevin
McCarthy and their allies — there’s more disunity, grumbling and
finger-pointing than there has been all year.
“There has to be some fence-mending,” a senior House Republican said.
“Boehner has to explain what happened. There has to be a clear
understanding how this leadership is going to work going forward. What’s
happened the last couple of months isn’t acceptable.”
Also, House Republicans blame the Senate — Republican and Democrats.
Another GOP lawmaker, speaking anonymously to criticize his party,
said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) didn’t fight hard enough
for a yearlong extension in December.
“We gave [McConnell] a great hand, and he turned around and played
solitaire,” the lawmaker said. Senate Republicans reject that
Some, though, think leadership isn’t responsible.
Cole urged his Republican colleagues to “look a little bit in the
mirror” when searching for whom to blame for the party’s shaky position
after the December dust-up.
“We have too many people that want to score touchdowns instead of make first downs,” he said.
Cantor said Republicans will be given time to vent this month at that Baltimore retreat that everyone expects to turn messy.
“I think we’re obviously going to have an opportunity to go on
retreat, and there will be an opportunity for members to voice concerns
that they have,” he said. “I know the leadership team remains committed
to try to push an agenda that is reflective of why we were elected into
the majority in the first place, and that is actually to change the way
that Washington works. And we’ve said from the beginning that making a
change in the way that we desire to do is not easy.”
— John Bresnahan and Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.