By DONNA CASSATA
BALTIMORE - House Republican leaders pleaded for elusive unity from the disparate factions in their party as they pursue a dual election-year prize of retaining their majority and denying President Barack Obama a second term.
"Unity, unity, unity," Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., said Friday after hearing his leadership's overriding message at a series of private meetings at the GOP's annual three-day retreat. The fresh appeal to many of the 242 members comes just weeks after rank-and-file opposition to a short-term extension of the payroll tax cut exposed deep divisions among Republicans and ended 2011 on a discordant political note.
Rancor in 2012, Republicans understand, would be politically perilous, especially with the American people already holding Congress in such low regard. Republicans expect Obama to campaign against the "do-nothing Congress," using the presidential bully pulpit to try to make his case.
Looking ahead to a new year, Republicans said their strategy is to highlight stark differences with Democrats on job creation, deficit spending and how Obama runs the government.
"It's pretty clear it's going to be a referendum on the president's policies. ... the devastating impact of these policies on our economy," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in brief remarks to reporters.
Boehner said he had instructed each committee chairman to step up oversight of the Obama administration, an examination that would touch on everything from national security to education and echo last year's hearings on an Energy Department loan to a now-bankrupt solar energy company and a problem-plagued gun smuggling investigation known as Operation Fast and Furious. Money from the stimulus package in Obama's first year also will face scrutiny.
Republicans painted a dire picture of the economy, with high unemployment, housing woes and Obama regulations, or even the possibility of new rules, hampering small businesses and hiring.
"If I were Barack Obama I wouldn't want to talk about my record either," said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore.
But in recent months, there have been signs of an economy on the upswing. Applications for unemployment benefits have dropped to their lowest level in nearly four years, housing sales increased and companies posted better earnings. The Dow Jones closed above 12,700 on Friday.
Economic indicators as well as perceptions of the nation's financial health will largely determine the re-election chances for Obama and members of Congress.
In perhaps a preview of the GOP effort to shape the debate, Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said the latest positive economic signs reflect a resilient economy and added, "Imagine what growth could be if we got all of these barriers out of the way."
Election-year politics are certain to limit any attempts at an ambitious legislative session, but high-profile votes and issues can clarify the battle lines. Republicans made clear they will continue the fight over Obama's decision to block, at least temporarily, a 1,700-mile Canada-to-Texas pipeline known as Keystone XL.
Rep. Fred Upton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said Republicans were open to making it part of the next round of negotiations on a Social Security tax cut and unemployment benefits, an attempt certain to draw Democratic opposition. House and Senate negotiators face a Feb. 29 deadline to coming up with a plan for a yearlong extension that also resolves the question of Medicare reimbursements for doctors.
"We are absolutely committed - as a Republican team - to keep the Keystone XL pipeline on the front burner," said Upton, R-Mich. He will hold hearings next week with State Department officials on their pipeline recommendation to the president.
Republicans argue that Obama's decision was politically driven and will cost the nation not only jobs but a new energy source.
Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, said Obama took "20,000 shovel-ready jobs on Keystone and buried them." Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-La., said if Obama were serious about helping the middle class, he would allow the Keystone project to proceed, with scores of jobs for blue-collar workers.
In addition to working out a compromise on the payroll tax cut, Republicans pledged to be aggressive in crafting a budget and cutting spending, arguing that Obama's policies have contributed to the growing deficit. House members acknowledged that their legislation has little chance in the Democratic-controlled Senate or with Obama, but Ryan made clear they will still press ahead to ensure the electorate has a choice.
"At the end of the day, we'll kick this up to the American people and let them decide what kind of America they want to have," he said.
In a series of meetings, Republicans heard from former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, a onetime presidential candidate, who focused on Obama's policies and their impact on free enterprise. They also heard about teamwork from former Washington Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs.
On Friday night, popular Republican and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who many had hoped would seek the presidency, was scheduled to speak to the Republican conference behind closed doors.
Surprisingly, lawmakers said there was little talk of presidential candidates. Pollsters did tell the GOP that once the party gets a nominee, it was critical that members of Congress and the candidate be on the same page, according to Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., who said he didn't foresee any problems.
Few members interrupted the gathering and socializing to watch Thursday night's debate from South Carolina.
"You get to the 18th debate," Terry joked. "Come on..."