By Russell Berman - 01/04/13 09:00 PM EST
Battered by division and defections, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is setting out to re-unify his conference and prove to Democrats in the White House and the Senate that he can command a governing majority of the House.
"I'm not a retribution kind of guy. I don't hold grudges," Boehner said in the meeting, according to several people in the room. "My door is always open, whether you voted for me, or didn’t vote for me.”
Lawmakers say the next two to three months of fiscal battles will be a crucial period for Boehner, who begins the 113th Congress with a smaller majority that includes a cadre of conservatives who have gone public in their opposition to his leadership.
The Speaker's immediate goal, members say, is to craft legislation that raises the debt ceiling and cuts spending while winning 218 Republican votes in the House.
“One, we have to craft the right legislation. Two, we have to have a spirit of teamwork within our caucus,” second-term Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.) said. “It’s important for us to be passing bills that can get to 218 out of here.”
For Boehner, getting Republicans on the same page has been harder than ever in the two months since the November election. He could not rally his conference around a fallback "fiscal-cliff" bill in December, and nearly two-thirds of House Republicans voted against the final Senate compromise on New Year's Day.
Beyond fiscal issues, however, Republicans pushed back and ultimately scrapped plans to vote on a five-year farm bill and major postal reform, in large measure because the leadership could not secure enough GOP votes to pass them.
The defections against Boehner in the vote for Speaker made clear that his struggle to unify the House GOP will continue in the 113th Congress. They serve as a warning to Boehner of the risks in repeatedly bringing bills to the floor that do not have majority Republican support.
“Clearly, this is not a group of trained poodles on the House floor,” Huizenga said. “You’ve got some very independent-thinking, strong-willed people, and that’s healthy for a democracy.”
The House is on recess next week, and lawmakers expect the debt-ceiling bill to be a central topic of discussion at the party's annual retreat in Williamsburg on Jan. 17-18.
At the conference meeting Friday, Boehner told House Republicans he would insist that an increase in the debt limit be accompanied by spending cuts and that the public was on the GOP’s side.
“With the [fiscal] cliff behind us, the focus turns to spending,” Boehner said, according to a person in the room. “The president says he isn't going to have a debate with us over the debt ceiling. He also says he's not going to cut spending along with the debt limit hike.”
The Speaker cited a new poll conducted just before the new year by the Winston Group, a Republican firm, which found that 72 percent of respondents “agree any increase in the nation's debt limit must be accompanied by spending cuts and reforms of a greater amount.”
Boehner first laid out that principle in a 2011 speech in New York, and has said he will stick to it as Congress debates the debt ceiling in the next two months. The Treasury Department said the nation hit its $16.4-trillion borrowing limit in late December and estimates the next increase must occur before March.
President Obama has vowed not to negotiate over the debt ceiling again, setting up another confrontation in the weeks ahead. Republicans will also be looking at the same time to enact spending cuts to replace automatic reductions to defense and domestic spending set now to take effect in March. And Congress faces another deadline one month later to extend government funding and prevent a shutdown.
Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), the new chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, said the party has found more success unifying around policies it opposes than coalescing around positions it supports.
“There has to be a lot of communication as to where we’re going to try to go,” he said. “If we can’t get to a focus on what we are going to do, then it is a little more challenging.”
Lankford said the House GOP is determined to act affirmatively on the debt ceiling, in the hopes it will put pressure on the Senate and not be forced to accept a last-minute compromise, as it has in year-end tax battles in both 2011 and 2012.
“We’re going to get ahead of it, I can tell you that,” Lankford said. “We’re not going to wait until the last second.”
While many lawmakers bemoaned the defections from Boehner as an embarrassment that weakens his leadership, Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.) said it could help him in one respect.
“In a bizarre way, I think it strengthens Boehner’s hand,” said Griffith, a former majority leader of the Virginia House of Delegates. “It makes it clear to the president that he’s got a bunch of folks who want to do something about spending, and they’re serious.”
As a former legislative leader, Griffith said he empathized with Boehner, even if he didn’t always agree with him.
“It’s also easier to sit on the outside of a leadership position and throw stones,” he said. “It’s much harder to be in his shoes.”