House Republicans Head to Retreat Amid Frustration, Low Ratings

House Republican leaders have a delicate task as their members gather for an annual retreat: pulling together a caucus that shares in Congress’s low approval ratings and crafting a legislative agenda that unifies the party.

The retreat being held at a harbor-front hotel in Baltimore comes one month after U.S. House Speaker John Boehner had to capitulate in a standoff with the Democratic-controlled Senate and accept a two-month extension of a payroll tax cut deal.

The message from Republican leadership is “unity, unity, unity,” Nebraska Representative Lee Terry told reporters today. “Every leader from Boehner on down” talked “about unity and working together and communicating to each other.”

The speaker is facing frustration from House freshmen, many backed by the Tea Party movement, who say their party fell short of its goals of slashing federal spending and the government’s debt.

“We have a very long way to go on a lot of issues that are really important,” said Representative James Lankford, a freshman Republican from Oklahoma. He said Congress succeeded last year by not further increasing spending on discretionary programs. “But what we have not succeeded at is stopping the avalanche of debt that is coming on us,” he said in a telephone interview. “That’s the frustration.”

The election in 2010 of 87 House Republican newcomers presented both an opportunity and challenge for Boehner as his party took control. Many of the freshmen have been impatient for quick results and are pushing to move faster. They were at the center of battles last year over legislation to extend government spending authority.

‘Around the Edges’

His fellow Republican freshmen view spending cuts imposed by Congress in the debt-ceiling legislation and spending measures as “nibbling around the edges,” said Michigan Representative Bill Huizenga. “In my class, a consensus of a large number of my colleagues is we have got to go further, faster,” he said in a telephone interview. He thinks that Boehner has “got to push hard” for more spending cuts.

House Republican Leader Eric Cantor vowed today to do just that.

‘Aggressive Budget’

“We will produce a very aggressive budget to try and get the fiscal house in order so that the federal government stops spending money it doesn’t have,” he told reporters.

Public opinion polls for Congress are grim, and indicate that voters are looking for compromise -- not a reminder of last year’s fights over the debt limit and payroll tax cuts.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted Jan. 12-15 put approval of Congress at 13 percent, a record low for that survey. A Dec. 15-18 Gallup poll had the figure at 11 percent, also a record. A Pew Research Center poll found that 53 percent of those surveyed Dec. 7-11 said Republicans were more extreme than Democrats, and 51 percent said Democrats are more willing to compromise.

Some House Republicans acknowledge that their policies haven’t won them a lot of public support.

“It’s natural that some folks are going to be upset with us,” Illinois Representative Joe Walsh, who has voted against budget and deficit deals Boehner negotiated, said in a Jan. 17 telephone interview. “We are asking everybody to toughen up and do what’s right.”

Huizenga said he got an earful of the public’s displeasure from constituents in his western Michigan district during the payroll tax fight in December.

‘Figure It Out’

“For God’s sake, you figure it out,” was a common expression of their frustration, he said. “The other was just such disbelief” that lawmakers couldn’t complete their work, with the tax cut set to expire on Dec. 31.

Earlier this week, House Republican leaders convened a closed-door meeting to let members vent about how the payroll- tax issue was left unresolved before Congress adjourned for a year-end recess. For some members, such as freshman New York Representative Tom Reed that ‘conversation got the air clear.’’ Others say there is lingering anger over how the issue was handled by Republican leaders.

Some More Talking

“We’ve got some more talking to do; there’s more ’splaining yet to be done,” said fourth-term Texas Republican Louis Gohmert.

In December, the House initially rejected a two-month extension of a two percentage point cut in the payroll tax proposed by the Senate and then capitulated under political pressure to avert a jump in withholding taxes this month. The impasse gave congressional Democrats and President Barack Obama a chance to portray Republicans as standing in the way of a tax cut for workers.

At the time, Boehner called the deal “the right thing for the American people even if it’s not exactly what we want.”

The December experience taught many members “individual lessons” about “falling in behind when there is consensus behind the plan instead” of “different splinter groups going off and creating havoc,” Terry said.

The House and Senate agreed to convene formal negotiations on an extension through the end of 2012, which are set to start next week when the Senate returns from its recess.

Walsh said that working in Boehner’s favor on the payroll tax cut issue is that members are eager to “get this thing off the table, out of the way” so Congress can move on to other issues.

Boehner’s Speakership

Though Democrats have accused Boehner of losing control of his caucus, Republicans say the episode hasn’t weakened the 11- term Ohio lawmaker’s hold on the speakership. Walsh and other freshmen say they don’t detect overt friction between Boehner, 62, and Cantor, a 48-year-old Virginia lawmaker regarded by many Republicans as a rival to the speaker.

“They are very different men, but I think they have been both on the same page to handle this delicate situation” of negotiating with Senate Democrats and Obama, Walsh said.

Nor does Cantor have more support than Boehner among the freshmen, which could pose a political threat to the speaker, Walsh said. “There is an even split among conservatives” over who best represents their views, he said.

Guest Speakers

At the retreat, Republicans will hear speeches by former Washington Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a popular figure in the party who defeated Democratic incumbent Governor Jon Corzine in 2009. Christie may be considered this year as a vice presidential running mate.

For the second year in a row, Republicans will hold their retreat just a few blocks from the girlhood home of their political nemesis, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. Now a Californian, Pelosi grew up in the Little Italy neighborhood of Baltimore, a city where her father and brother both served as mayor.

Getting away together may help quell animosities lingering from the payroll-tax fight yet “we are a family and we get past those” tensions, said Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah. The retreat may help “build those bonds back up” so Republicans can “come out stronger after that.”

To contact the reporter on this story: James Rowley in Baltimore at jarowley@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jodi Schneider at jschneider50@bloomberg.net

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.