GOP returns with New Year’s hangover

House Republicans return to Washington this week in a foul mood and searching for leverage against Senate Democrats and the White House. 

Unlike 2011, however, leverage could be hard to find this year.

The leverage points that GOP leaders identified and used successfully to win spending cuts last year have been taken off the table. The federal government won’t run out of money for another nine months, and the president holds the key to raising the debt ceiling through the November election.

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The White House sees only one “must-pass” bill on the horizon — an extension of the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits for the remainder of 2012. But that is an unlikely spot for Republicans to make a stand. The party lost badly on the issue at the close of last year, and many Republicans want to avoid a drag-out fight that could further damage their image.

Consequently, the prevailing mood among some rank-and-file House Republicans heading into the second year of their majority is pessimism.

“It’s kind of hard to get excited when we just went through a pretty unproductive 2011,” second-term Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) said. “Am I optimistic or pessimistic? The answer is, unfortunately, I’m pessimistic.”

With a record-low congressional approval rating hanging like a storm cloud over the Capitol, the gloomy feeling among the rank and file stems from several factors.

Lawmakers, particularly members of the vaunted class of freshmen, voiced disappointment that the GOP’s modest achievements in spending cuts in 2011 did not meet their lofty expectations for taking a sledgehammer to the national debt.

A few of the most conservative members of the party have characterized the past year as an outright failure, pointing to the minimal dent that the spending deals have made in the immediate deficit and to the exceptions that party leaders made to procedural reforms at the end of the year.

“We certainly haven’t followed through in the Pledge to America,” freshman Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) said in an interview, referring to the GOP’s central campaign document from 2010. “I thought we were going to cut spending rather than add to spending.”

Others have endorsed the more positive assessment made by party leaders — that the new House majority succeeded in changing the debate in Washington from where to spend more taxpayer money to how much spending can be cut. “I think that’s a big victory for the year,” freshman Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) said.

The opportunities for more wins in 2012 will be severely limited, GOP lawmakers and leadership aides acknowledged, by the White House’s lack of interest in engaging with Congress. Eschewing the deficit “grand bargain” he sought in 2011, President Obama has adopted a confrontational tone toward Congress as he gears up for reelection, dimming hopes for bipartisan legislative achievements beyond an extension of the payroll tax cut.

The presidential tack could have troubling implications for one of Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) top 2012 priorities: a highway transportation bill that generates new revenue for infrastructure through increasing domestic energy production. Boehner sees the combination as a political no-brainer and a prime opportunity for bipartisan legislation — Obama would get the infrastructure funding he has sought for months, while Republicans could claim a victory in the energy arena.

But in the absence of a deadline to spur action, the effort requires a Democratic Party willing to deal, and Republicans broadly believe Obama would rather beat up on Congress than work with it. The House GOP bill contains drilling provisions that the administration has rejected in the past, and Republicans could be left with little more than a political messaging tool.

“Our leverage will be the American people disagreeing with the idea that we’ll be done doing our work at the end of February,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said, in a reference to the deadline for extending the payroll tax cut, the sole White House legislative priority.

Congress must also agree on a long-term reauthorization for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) after its current funding runs out on Jan. 31. And House Republicans are likely to use the quieter session to return to regular legislative order on appropriations bills for fiscal 2013. Because of the protracted spending fights last year, lawmakers were forced to rely on stopgap measures and finally an omnibus spending bill to fund the government for 2012.

Party leaders from Boehner on down are girding for a tongue-lashing this week from members who are still stewing about how the payroll tax fight ended in December. After the House GOP spent days lambasting a Senate two-month compromise agreed to by Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Boehner abruptly reversed course under mounting political pressure. He announced the decision in a perfunctory conference call with members and within 18 hours the House passed by unanimous consent a measure that, with the exception of a small change, was identical to the Senate compromise.

“All Republicans on Capitol Hill need to have a campfire meeting,” freshman Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) said. “We absolutely need to talk about what happened here.”

West called the payroll tax fight “a debacle” and said the Senate agreement was “an absolutely abhorrent piece of legislation.”

In interviews, West and other House Republicans fuming about the payroll tax defeat said that despite the frustration some members have with leadership, neither Boehner nor his deputies appear at risk of a direct challenge to their posts. “I’m not talking about a change in leadership,” West said. “We need to get back on the same sheet of music.”

Leadership aides said the anger was not limited to junior members and that party leaders, including Boehner, were unhappy. “Everyone is pissed about how last year ended,” one leadership aide said.

House Republicans will hold their annual retreat in Baltimore later this week, and while plenty of venting is expected, the goal of the conference is to hone the party’s agenda and message for 2012. 

“We’re going to stay focused on trying to make it easier for small businesses to create jobs,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) told The Hill. “We’re going on the retreat next week, and we’re going to make sure we stay focused on that as we lay out an agenda going forward.”