House Republicans Fear Another Session of Infighting

John Boehner

Mr. Boehner began 2011 with the heady wave of victory and ended the year in disarray when the Senate forced him and his members to accept a short-term extension of the payroll tax cut. Now, he begins the second session of the 112th Congress on defense, his leadership under scrutiny and his party facing an election-year attack from the White House.

His challenge is not only to rein in his restive conference but also to preserve his party’s majority even as he fends off President Obama, who is making Congress his central opponent in his re-election bid. And rank-and-file Republicans are itching for accomplishments, like reducing regulations and changing the tax code, to sell in their districts.

“He needs to be clear in what our strategy is,” said Representative Marlin Stutzman, a freshman Republican from Indiana. “I got chewed out by folks who said, ‘Why did you fold?’ I got scolded back home, and I don’t really like it.

“Leadership has to make decisions sometimes,” he added, “but we could at least be on the same page.”

The tensions among Republican lawmakers reflect the central problem that Mr. Boehner faced through several rounds of negotiations over federal spending last year. In his attempts to strike the kinds of bipartisan deals that voters say they crave, the speaker often gets ahead of his conservative membership and is then forced to retreat when he finds support lacking.

Mr. Boehner’s travails, which many Republicans and Democrats view as stemming from a fundamental misreading of what he can extract from his conference, have hurt his credibility both in his own ranks and with Congressional Democrats and the White House.

“I wish I could say it will be better in terms of more bipartisanship,” said Representative Michael G. Grimm, Republican of New York. “But I don’t think it will.”

Mr. Boehner, however, said he was confident that he had full control over his members.

“You know, I grew up in a big family and had my share of frustration trying to come to decisions within the family,” Mr. Boehner said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office. “And, my goodness, there are 242 of us in this family. You’re going to have divergent opinions.”

“Some people want to do more things, and they want to do them faster,” he added. “Others think we ought to take a more reasoned approach. My job is to listen to my members to make a decision about how we move forward, get everybody on the same page and go. It’s not easy.”

Asked if he sometimes wanted to shake members who would not listen to his appeals, Mr. Boehner laughed as he blew a curl of smoke and said, “Yes.”

Mr. Boehner’s problems on the Hill reflect the divisions within the Republican Party, with the most right-leaning faction’s quest for ideological purity chafing against a desire among some members, including Mr. Boehner, to compromise in the name of legislative accomplishment.

“With a 25-seat majority,” said Representative Aaron Schock, Republican of Illinois, “you need to be together in order to govern. With so many new members comes the challenge of getting everyone’s expectations to be reasonable and having unified goals. I believe many members have more reasonable expectations now.”

The Republican presidential nominee, when he is selected, is certain to complicate matters further, adding another prominent voice to every policy battle.

In Mr. Boehner’s favor this year is an absence of the kind of mandatory legislation, like a bill to finance the government or raise the debt ceiling, that caused so much chaos last year.

But still awaiting Congressional action are long-term extensions of the payroll tax holiday and unemployment benefits, which were abandoned in December over disagreements on how to pay for them, and a Federal Aviation Administration bill that got mired in a fight over labor unions. All of those debates raise the possibility of new clashes between the parties and within the Republican conference.

The bipartisan House and Senate conference committee assigned to deal with the payroll and unemployment benefit legislation could expedite and smooth the process, but Republican votes will be needed to pass any legislation it drafts.

“I am one of those conservatives who would have voted against the Senate bill and not voted to extend the payroll tax cuts at all,” said Representative Dennis Ross of Florida, “because that is the better policy.”

Republican leaders seem dedicated to a plan of letting members vent any lingering frustrations in the days before their party retreat in Baltimore this week, and then moving on to a new set of bills related to the economy.

 In a memorandum to members, Representative Jeb Hensarling of Texas, the chairman of the House Republican Conference, said, “We will devote our time in Baltimore to looking forward, discussing our goals for 2012, and designing a plan to achieve them.”

Republicans hope Mr. Obama’s pronouncement that a full-year extension of the payroll tax cut was the last “must-do” piece of legislation for the White House will work in their favor, making them look as though they are trying to create jobs while Mr. Obama is busy campaigning.

“If I had the president’s record,” said Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, “I’d be looking for a scapegoat, too. When he says Congress, I wonder if he is including the Senate, which is run by his own party.”

In the new session, Mr. Boehner said, “we will have continued, relentless focus on getting our economy moving again and getting the American people back to work.” High on the agenda is a bill to remove many regulations on American energy production, with projected new revenues from domestic production to be used to improve infrastructure.

Republicans will also continue to strongly support the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to Texas, which the White House is seeking to block.

“I want to wake up talking about Keystone pipeline and I want to go to bed at night talking about Keystone pipeline,” said Representative Tim Griffin of Arkansas. “Because it shows everything that is wrong with this administration and everything that is right about conservatives in Congress.”

In interviews, a dozen House Republicans said that although they remained angry about the way the last year ended, they were ready to support Mr. Boehner and move on. “You will see a reinvigorated conference,” said Representative Cory Gardner of Colorado. “I don’t think you win the American people by discussing the past.”

But it is clear that some members, many of whom have been steadfast in their opposition to Mr. Boehner’s efforts for the politically possible, will continue to stir the pot. Representative Allen B. West of Florida told a radio host that the leadership had sold the party “down the road.”

Representative Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, who sits in a far more comfortable re-election position than many of his colleagues, took the fight to them, saying he was “embarrassed by his fellow freshmen Republican lawmakers in D.C.,” according to a report in Politico.

Mr. Mulvaney added, “I would be embarrassed to tell you how many folks ran saying that they weren’t going to spend a bunch of money, they weren’t going to raise the debt ceiling, and then they went to Washington, D.C., and did exactly that.”

It is just that sort of infighting that many hope to avoid. “There is an expectation that we work together,” said Mr. Schock of Illinois. “We will be struggling to find common ground.”

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