Boehner at Republican retreat calls for unity to keep pressure on Obama

John Boehner’s focus for the next few days is to get his House GOP conference off the mats.

On day one of the House GOP retreat in Baltimore, the Speaker of the House attempted to rally his conference with a call to turn the “spotlight” on President Obama’s policies.

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The Ohio lawmaker told GOP rank-and-file members that they must unite to take the fight to President Obama in this presidential election year.

“The year 2012 will be a referendum on the president's policies, and we must use every resource at our disposal to drive that referendum -- including stepped-up oversight of administration policies that are getting in the way of small business job creation,” Boehner said on Thursday afternoon to his colleagues according to a source in the room.

At this time last year, GOP lawmakers had the wind at their back – having just taken control of the House gavel after four years of Democratic control.

This year, however, they must attempt to repair the damage that occurred in late December, when House GOP leaders appeared divided over how to tackle the take-it-or-leave it Senate-passed two-month extension of President Obama’s payroll tax cut.

According to sources at the retreat, lawmakers are more concerned with the perception of a fractured leadership team, not so much with the short-term political hit that the party took in an abrupt protest of a two-month long extension, followed by capitulation days later.

On Wednesday, at the first closed-door meeting of House Republicans since the ugliness of December, one GOP lawmaker called on Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) to put aside their differences.

Nebraska Rep. Lee Terry (R) stood and said "Mr. Boehner and Mr. Cantor, if you are divided or there's a perception that you are divided, we cannot be united as a conference,” sources told The Hill.

Neither Boehner or Cantor “batted an eye,” attendees noted.

Earlier in the week, outspoken freshman Rep. Allen West (R-Fl.) told The Hill that the conference needed to discuss what happened with the payroll tax cut strategy.

“All Republicans on Capitol Hill need to have a campfire meeting,” West 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.”

It was unclear how that issue would be addressed in Baltimore but lawmakers anticipated that it would happen at some point.

The stinging payroll tax defeat has left many in the House GOP exasperated, with some publicly and privately questioning their leaders.

In late December, a GOP insider said the tensions between Boehner and Cantor loyalists will reverberate into next year, and that the House Republican Conference could be in utter disarray in January and February.

Though some were anticipating outraged lawmakers to stand and castigate the Speaker for appearing to make a unilateral decision to accept the two-month extension, those lawmakers sat on their hands.

Boehner publicly fell on his sword at the time, and now he must find a way to unite his 242 member conference heading into what promises to be a brutal election year with a president aimed at running against a dysfunctional Congress.

The Ohio lawmaker rallied his team to focus on “policies coming out of this White House -- policies like Obamacare -- are hurting our economy and making it harder for small businesses to create jobs.”

“We have a responsibility to use our majority to shine a spotlight on those policies and demand accountability from this administration on behalf of the American people,” Boehner said at the kick-off of the three-day issues retreat intended to foster teamwork among battle-weary lawmakers.

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) briefed the troops on the breakdowns of votes in 2011 – focusing on the need to show strong support for legislation.

Cantor lead a seminar entitled “Buckle your seatbelts” with former RNC Chairman and longtime Hill staffer Ed Gillespie, to discuss the legislation for the upcoming year, according to an agenda of events obtained by The Hill.

Leaders called on big names to rally the rank-and-file over the weekend-long retreat.

Former Washington Redskins coach/NASCAR team owner Joe Gibbs was set to lead a session on teamwork and leadership.

And leaders hope that Friday night's keynote speaker, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, will have a unifying effect on the GOP conference.