To Fix Image, House G.O.P. Thinks Small

John Boehner

WASHINGTON — Unpopular and divided, the once mighty House Republicans are laboring to repair their image and frame a new agenda.

Absent for now is a big, contentious docket similar to last year’s, which included the goal of writing new health care legislation to replace the Obama administration’s law. A long-promised overhaul of the tax code seems out of reach. When Representative Eric Cantor, the Virginia Republican and majority leader, issued a memo this week laying out the body’s initial legislative agenda, a centerpiece was a modest tax cut for small businesses.

With their poll numbers sinking and President Obama attacking them — and poking fun in a weekend speech at the infighting among their leaders — House Republicans long to establish a reputation as the party of job creation and to blunt the notion that they are recalcitrant and combative.

Senior Republicans are eager to minimize the drama, letting the party’s presidential candidate, when he is finally chosen, take the lead.

”Most of us expect the major decisions aren’t going to be made this year,” said Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a former chairman of the House Republican campaign committee. ”It’s a very political year. The big thing for us is to not be part of the conversation instead of trying to inject ourselves into it.”

But attracting positive attention while avoiding confrontation is proving to be a challenge in an election year, particularly for a group that in 2011 seemed to relish showdown after showdown.

Members are still struggling to sing from the same legislative hymnal. Many want to do bigger things, like a tax code overhaul and changes to the Medicare program. Others, including Mr. Cantor, knowing they will get no help from Senate Democrats, seem to favor more incremental steps.

Many of the more conservative members, particularly some freshmen, want to continue taking the good fight to Democrats.

”We should focus on standing for principle and put the politics aside,” said Representative Todd Akin of Missouri, who is in a Republican primary fight for a seat in the Senate. ”You have to keep doing what you think is the right thing to do.”

Others desperately want to find bipartisan compromises that can become law. ”The system is designed to make things difficult,” said Representative John Campbell of California. ”You just have to persevere. Agreements take time, and they’re supposed to.”

Outside pressures from each end of the political spectrum, which have dogged the House all year, are myriad: a five-year transportation bill, a major priority of Speaker John A. Boehner, is already being attacked by the left, for including new oil drilling as a way to pay for the bill, and the right — Heritage Action for America, a conservative group, is urging Republicans to reject new highway spending.

Further, Mr. Boehner and Mr. Cantor, whose strained relationship recalls the days of the intraparty intrigue that bedeviled Newt Gingrich as speaker, have had to spend time trying to stamp out perceptions that they are working at dangerous cross-purposes.

Their tensions are so well known that Mr. Obama joked about the two at a black-tie banquet Saturday night. (”Speaker Boehner, it is good to see you at the head table. I know how badly Eric Cantor wanted your seat.”) Members grouse regularly about the seeming divisions, and Mr. Cantor’s staff felt it necessary this week to extensively explain that their two staffs had called a truce.

”As you’re clearly aware,” Mr. Boehner said Thursday, ”there have been some staff rumbles from time to time, but that’s to be expected when you’re doing big things. And members and our staffs, they’re passionate about what they do. Sometimes that leads to some disagreements.”

Also, a tangle in December over extending the payroll tax cut pitted House Republicans against Senate Republicans, who argue that their House colleagues need to settle down and find a uniform message with them.

”A body of 535 doesn’t sing easily in one chorus,” said Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee. ”I would get up in the morning, look in the mirror and say three words: ‘the Obama economy,’ ” he said, ”Then say, ‘They’ve been in charge, they made it worse, we can make it better.’ And remember all three messages.”

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