By Molly K. Hooper and Russell Berman - 01/19/13 11:00 AM EST
WILLIAMSBURG, Va. – House Republicans appeared to be coming to grips with a stark realization as they returned to Washington from a three-day retreat here — they have a majority in name only.
The party begins the 113th Congress with reduced numbers and confronting a popular president and an increased Democratic majority in the Senate.
Republicans “have to recognize the realities of the divided government that we have,” said Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the party’s budget chief and 2012 vice presidential nominee.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his aides have taken to referring to the “Democrat majority in Washington” in statements in recent weeks.
The stance is a significant shift from the party’s mantra in the immediate aftermath of the November election, when Boehner and other leaders claimed one half of a dual mandate from voters who had reelected both Obama and the House Republican majority.
It also represents a resetting of expectations for Republican lawmakers and voters alike.
Coming off what many viewed as a defeat in the fiscal cliff deal, and with Obama adopting a hardline position on fiscal matters, Republicans have diminished hopes of what they can force Democrats to accept.
Managing expectations in the years ahead was a major focus of the retreat, reiterated during listening sessions with leadership, members and aides said.
Instead of passing dozens of GOP-favored measures anathema to Democrats, House Republicans lawmakers intend to make a greater effort of sending bills to the Senate that Democrats would have a difficult time opposing.
“There was an element of saying, 'Let's be realistic about what we can accomplish, if we pass something that there's no way in hell they'll even talk about, what value is that?,” Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said of the conversation that took place most of the day Thursday between lawmakers and leadership.
“The value is — what we come up with is something that can actually be accomplished and so that's part of the goal — (given the president and the Democratic Senate),” Bishop added.
Bishop explained that given the Democratic-controlled Senate and Democratic White House, leaders made a point of emphasizing that “sometimes we get ourselves in trouble where we have an expectation level that is just unrealistic.”
That strategy was on display with Friday’s announcement of a path forward on the debt ceiling.
Instead of attaching deep spending cuts or contentious entitlement reforms to an increase in the nation’s borrowing limit, Republicans chose to use member pay as the string to attach. The issue is seen as a political winner, and both Democrats and Republicans have proposed withholding the salaries of lawmakers if the House and Senate fail to pass a budget.
A senior House GOP leadership source expanded on the Speaker’s intention of managing expectations during the three-day retreat.
“It's important that we set expectations to a reasonable level so that we're not over-promising, that we are actually under-promising and over-delivering,” the source said.
Since retaking control of the House in 2010, a number of conservative lawmakers have been frustrated with their leadership’s inability to deliver on repealing healthcare or enacting all of the Bush-era tax rates.
Many GOP lawmakers believed that they would win control of the Senate and White House in 2012 but that scenario didn’t happen. So, instead of reading the internal party gripes in the media, Boehner and his inner circle wanted to present the facts of the current situation.
And the leadership enlisted Ryan’s help to emphasize the political reality in D.C.
“As Ryan very clearly articulated, we're the minority in Washington, [so] how do you impact real change when you only have the House and you don't have the Senate or presidency? It's pretty hard,” the source conceded.
With Ryan’s conservative cache, leaders laid out a somber situation to manage expectations. That entailed telling rank-and-file Republicans no to “promise something you can't deliver on,” the source said.
“Boehner's never promised something he can't deliver on — but that doesn't mean some members expectations are way out of whack. We probably have a handful of members who think it's doable to enact all the policies in the Ryan Budget over the next two years, and that's La La land."
Following the extensive Thursday morning and afternoon sessions with leadership, one GOP lawmaker said that the House lawmakers were prepared to move smaller bills that may force action in the Senate.
“We're looking at doing smaller, more incremental legislation that is directly tied to must-pass issues such as the sequestration ... If you think about it — sequestration for the president is the same as the Bush tax cut expiration for us ... it's going to happen. It's in law and I don't think he's going to like those cuts,” Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) told The Hill.