Fractious House GOP tries to unify

House Republican leaders Wednesday began the process of rallying their fractious conference behind an agenda for 2012.

The 242-member House majority met behind closed doors for the first time this year, coming off a bitter defeat in the payroll-tax-cut fight at the close of 2011.

Party leaders emerged from the meeting proclaiming that the conference was united around the belief that President Obama’s policies have failed, though they have to settle on their own strategy for the coming election year.

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“Our members are united around the realization that the policies that have been promoted by this administration have not worked,” Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said.

The House GOP heads to Baltimore on Thursday for its annual retreat, where party leaders hope to hash out their game plan. Previewing the agenda, Cantor said House Republicans would try to boost small businesses.

“Our members are going to be hyper-focused on how we go about creating small business jobs,” he said.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) briefly addressed the anger that some members voiced over the handling of the payroll-tax-cut bill. After criticizing a Senate-passed compromise, the House GOP folded under pressure from within the party and, at Boehner’s direction, approved virtually an identical version of the legislation at the end of the year.

“Listen, we’ve got a lot of disparate voices within our conference,” Boehner told reporters after the meeting. “We were picking the right fight, but I would argue we probably picked it at the wrong time.”

Members leaving the private meeting said it wasn’t as contentious as some had expected.

“I was really surprised there really wasn’t that much venting of frustration,” Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) said.

Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), one of the loudest critics of the payroll -tax deal, said: “Of course we talked about what happened in December, because a lot of people were not happy about that, and there are lessons learned and we will build up on that as we get ready to go to the retreat up in Baltimore over the next couple days.”

West said leaders did not apologize for the way the payroll-tax fight unfolded.

“It’s not a matter of apologizing,” he said. “It is a matter of applying lessons going forward.”

Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio), a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee, said it was tough for the GOP conference to be totally united.

“Common understanding? Kind of an oxymoron with 242 people,” Tiberi said after the conference meeting.

Tiberi also agreed with Boehner, his fellow Ohio Republican, that the House GOP was right on its payroll-tax policy, even if it came up on the short end politically.

“What we acknowledged in there is that, although we might be right on the policy, particularly as you get closer to the November election, politics is going to reign,” he said.

After the meeting, House Republican freshmen trained their ire on Senate Democrats, holding a press conference to denounce their failure to pass a budget. Jan. 24 – the date of President Obama’s State of the Union address – will mark the 1,000th day since the Senate last approved a budget.

“It’s a disgrace when they don’t come up with a budget,” Rep. Alan Nunnelee (R-Miss.) said. He suggested that Obama should use his State of the Union address to call on the Senate to pass a budget.

Several members held up pictures of their young children and grandchildren, some of whom they said had not been born when the Senate last approved a budget blueprint. Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio) said his daughter was 868 days old. “All of her life there hasn’t been a budget in this country,” he said.

— Erik Wasson and Bernie Becker contributed.

This story was updated at 1:02 p.m.

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