By Marisa Schultz
After a bruising start to 2013, Speaker John Boehner led his Republican House delegation to its party retreat in Williamsburg, Va., to forge a more practical path.
Divisions lingered over the fiscal cliff deal on Jan. 1 that ushered in tax increases for high-income households, normal wage earners and investors as well as sharpened criticism from the right on Boehner's ability to stand up to the White House. Days later, a dozen of his party members, including Michigan's Justin Amash, kicked off the new Congress by rejecting Boehner's re-election as speaker, though he still prevailed.
By the third week of January, however, House Republicans emerged from Williamsburg with a strategy and cohesiveness that eluded them at critical times last session, Republicans say.
Factions remain. But Republicans say the adherence so far to a no-tax-hike policy has provided greater confidence in their leadership for the upcoming budget face-offs on the federal debt ceiling and entitlement reforms.
"It started with our retreat," said U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, who was part of the 2010 wave that gave way to Boehner's speakership. " I think we're more unified and a little more deliberate and specific on the direction of where we are going."
The latest phase of the Republican game plan came to fruition last month as 2012 vice president nominee Paul Ryan unveiled the GOP budget with a fresh air of confidence and won the votes to pass it from all but 10 of his GOP colleagues (Amash among the dissenters). The budget retains tax and spending cuts and controversial Medicare reforms from previous versions, but also pledges to balance the budget in 10 years instead of nearly three decades in his previous version -- a nod to fiscal conservatives who have pushed for quicker deficit reduction.
The 2010 election led to a historic 63-seat gain for Republicans and brought in a bulging class of Republican freshman who campaigned on repealing President Barack Obama's health care law and shrinking the national debt. Transitioning to the majority party with a crop of newcomers challenged Boehner's ability to garner enough votes from fellow Republicans -- most notably on the fiscal cliff package.
The 2012 election, however, preserved Democratic leadership in the White House and U.S. Senate and trimmed the GOP majority in the U.S. House. Republicans say the outcome has tempered GOP expectations, while helping them focus around their shared priorities, spending cuts and tax reform.
Gone this session are tangles over social issues, such as funding Planned Parenthood.
"It wasn't just members; the general public and a lot of the people who helped get us here had unrealistic expectations of what was going to be happening (in the first term)," Huizenga said of the 2010 election. "So now we've sort of lived through a couple of years of it. For some, they still haven't realized that we don't control government all the way across, others have figured out that maybe we need to eat the elephant one bite at a time."
The new strategy first included an agreement to a three-month extension on the debt limit. Instead of demanding spending cuts with an increase in borrowing authority, Republicans successfully pushed for "no budget, no pay" legislation that would force the House and Senate to pass a budget by April 15 or their paychecks would be held in escrow.
The Senate had failed to pass a budget resolution since 2009, but now Senate Democrats passed their own spending plan that sharply contrasts with the Ryan budget.
Next, Republicans refused to do away with $85 billion in automatic spending cuts slated for March 1 if it meant tax increases. They argued the president got his tax hikes in the fiscal cliff deal. With sequestration in place, Republicans then passed a short-term budget bill that retains much of the sequester cuts but offers flexibility, mostly to military programs.
"I think the majority of us are real happy that that's the strategy," said Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, who returned to Congress in 2010 with the GOP wave. "If John Boehner keeps leading like that, I think he has full support."
Amash, a Ron Paul-inspired sophomore who bucked leadership enough to get booted from the Ryan-led budget committee, said he is pleased the party seems to be heeding his call for a 10-year balanced budget.
Though the House's direction has improved, Amash said he is still troubled by leadership not allowing amendments on certain bills. He has broken ranks to vote against rules that bring such legislation to the House floor.
"We're beginning to see that sometimes the only leverage we'll have is to oppose a rule when the end result will be bad legislation," Amash said.
Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, R-Milford, won the endorsement of Amash and a money boost from a libertarian super political action committee in his election for the seat vacated last year by Rep. Thad McCotter. But now in Congress, Bentivolio isn't aspiring to become another libertarian lightning rod, but instead talks of teamwork.
"We don't make a touchdown every play," Bentivolio said, in explaining why he sometimes disagrees with Amash and will approve legislation that doesn't have 100 percent of what he wants. "Sometimes we can only move the ball a few yards."
Obama and the Democrats have criticized Republicans for letting the sequester cuts go through, which they argue will cost jobs and hurt the most vulnerable populations. House Democrats unanimously opposed Ryan's budget as another move to benefit the wealthy and argued his plan to give future Medicare seniors a set amount with the option of buying private insurance was rejected by voters during the presidential election.
"This plan is an out-of-focus vision that would end Medicare as we know it, gut the investments we've made in job creation and providing affordable health care to our people, and would allow Wall Street to again run free with the investments of our working families and retirees," said Rep. John Dingell, D-Dearborn.
Rep. Sandy Levin, D-Royal Oak, says the Republican House has become "radicalized" with the new crop of members and their extreme positions have made it difficult to reach compromise.
But conservatives see events in recent weeks as signs of strength -- holding firm on budget cuts, adopting a 10-year balanced budget plan and prodding the Senate to propose its own budget.
"When we as Republicans unify around conservative, solid Republican principles and stand firm, we have proven we can move the debate in the right direction and that to me is the big takeaway from the first three months of this Congress," said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio.
His remarks came at a gathering March 20 of some of the House's most conservative voices.
"What the Republicans agreed to in the Williamsburg accord, this (budget) is the next step of that," said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas, who, like Amash, was stripped of committee assignments and voted against Boehner as speaker. "This is No. 3. The real tough part of that Republican agreement is that fourth part: To take the ideas, principles and vision of this budget and put it in our debt ceiling debate with President (Obama). This is going to be where the rubber meets the road."