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Divided House GOP to Huddle on Strategy

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The House GOP will gather for a private three-day strategy session aimed at least in part on mending open wounds. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

It’s called the House GOP’s annual issues “retreat.” But political “war council” might be a better description of what’s ahead when Speaker John Boehner and his rank-and-file Republicans trek next week to Williamsburg, Va., for a private three-day meeting.

The conference – coming fresh off the fiscal cliff showdown and an embarrassing-even-if-unsuccessful coup attempt on the speaker – will focus at least partly on healing divisions. Republicans will try to emerge with more unified strategies and a public messaging campaign in the upcoming debt ceiling, tax, and spending battles.

“The most important thing (for the conference to achieve) is to better unify and bring members together,” said Mark Strand, president of the Alexandria, Va.-based Congressional Institute, the not-for-profit corporation that sponsors the annual conference. Rather than there being wide differences of views on issues, Strand said he would describe the House GOP more as wrestling right now with internal “differences on tactics.”

But the differences are wide and deep

Republicans are aware the public holds Congress in low esteem, and November’s election results underscored the GOP’s share of voters’ disdain. A Washington Post/ABC poll last week showed more registered voters (51 percent) approved of President Obama in the fiscal cliff negotiations than Boehner (31 percent).

Against that backdrop, Republicans in Congress and out are publically challenging Boehner to get tough – but there’s little consensus about which fights the speaker should pick.

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., argued Republicans will need to capitulate in a showdown over raising the debt ceiling and focus instead on winning the spending and tax concessions they seek from Democrats by being willing to shut down the government. “If Republicans fall for the debt ceiling trap they will once again be isolated in a corner, identified as negative extremists, and ultimately forced to back down with maximum internal conflict and bitterness among conservatives and Republicans,” Gingrich said.

Forfeiting a fight on the debt ceiling is not something members of the House appear willing to do yet. A House leadership aide said a plan is being mapped out to have all GOP members united behind an effort to reject new taxes and demand spending cuts equal to the amount of any increase in the nation’s ability to borrow.

Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., who was the freshman-class president during the last session, said such a plan from Boehner is something he and others are hoping to see. And other House GOP members have gone as far to say they are prepared to shut down the government and block a debt-ceiling deal to force Obama to accept deep cuts, such as to entitlement programs.

Another battle, over what to do about the deferred “sequester” cuts, is geared to March 1. That’s when defense and domestic programs are set to be hit. And later in March a government shutdown could occur unless more funding to keep government agencies running through the end of the fiscal year (Sept. 30) is approved.

Many lawmakers in both parties dislike the looming $85 billion sequester cuts, divided between defense and domestic discretionary programs. But some Republicans, like Gingrich, argue that the negotiations over those cuts, and the third upcoming battle over keeping government funded, offer better opportunities to get the cuts they desire than a debt ceiling stand-off.

“Threatening to selectively close, eliminate, or shrink various parts of the government through spending bills puts President Obama and Congressional Democrats on defense,” Gingrich argues. He adds, “Is there any Democrat who can argue with a straight face that in a $3.7 trillion federal government there is nothing which can not be cut or eliminated?” 

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