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At GOP retreat, leaders preach unity

By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau –

BALTIMORE — A former plastics salesman, House Speaker John A. Boehner stood before the unwieldy GOP majority with a pitch: Members must stick together like never before, not only for the sake of their agenda in Congress, but for the larger prize of reclaiming the White House this fall.

It was a complicated sell at the GOP’s annual retreat here as Boehner faced rambunctious lawmakers still intent on changing how Washington does business. Though Republicans said they were humbled and frustrated by last year’s bruising political warfare, some in the tea party-powered majority are rearing to go at it again.

Boehner appealed to a higher cause, one that places the spoils of the campaign season at the forefront of a new strategy, not the constant legislative skirmishes that defined days past.

This is “our chance to actually put a new government in power that can begin to implement the policies and reforms we know are truly needed to put our country back on track,” Boehner said behind closed doors at the Waterfront Marriott, according to a person in the room who requested anonymity to discuss the private session.

This year “will be a referendum on the president’s policies, and we must use every resource at our disposal to drive that referendum,” Boehner said. “We spent most of 2011 churning out jobs bills and sending them over to the Senate, and we’re going to continue to do that in 2012.”

But Boehner told his caucus that the GOP also has “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.”

With the White House in the GOP’s sights and the chance to flip the Senate to Republican control, the underlying message to the rabble rousers among them was clear: Don’t blow this opportunity.

“Every leader from Boehner down … talked about unity and working together,” said veteran Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb. “Unity, unity, unity.”

Was it working? “We’ll see,” Terry said.

Campaigning is always an easier lift than governing, and much of the GOP agenda this year is likely to provide more bumper-sticker slogans than new laws because areas of compromise with the Senate remain slim.

Republicans are doubling down on a legislative agenda that resembles last year’s efforts to shrink the size and scope of government, and President Barack Obama is prepared to exploit a lack of legislative accomplishments as he runs against a so-called “do nothing” Congress.

Asking the rank-and-file to put aside personal political pursuits for the sake of GOP success on Election Day provides Boehner with an attractive strategy that could have some appeal to even the hardest chargers under his watch.

And it may be an easier script for newer lawmakers to follow after a year of party battles — most notably, the year-end payroll tax cut showdown pushed by party conservatives — that allowed Democrats to portray the GOP as extreme.

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