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House GOP's 2012 Mission: Unity Against Obama

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The last battle scar of 2011 for the GOP came in December, when House Republicans painted themselves into a corner on extending unemployment benefits and the payroll tax cut. The fight exposed the party's internal rifts and the loose control of its leaders.

One GOP lawmaker called it "a public relations fiasco." They could compromise with the Democrats or allow taxes to go up — neither option palatable to large portions of the majority.

Then, two days before Christmas, House Speaker John Boehner agreed to a short-term deal with Democrats, pushing it through by voice vote on an empty House floor. Republicans closed out the year in discord.

So when Boehner gathered the House GOP in Baltimore this past weekend, there was really only one task at hand — reunify the party.

And what better way to do that than with a common enemy.

"President Obama's policies have not helped our economy. As a matter of fact, his policies have made our economy worse," Boehner said to the assembled crowd.

This is the thesis statement for the Republicans in 2012. Boehner made clear he will use every tool he has to drive that point home, including the Congressional powers of oversight of the executive branch.

"I've asked every member and every committee to look at the president's policies and to help the American people understand ... and help other members of Congress understand the devastating impact of these policies on our economy," Boehner said.

Another Republican leader, Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, said the party's singular focus this election year will be President Obama.

"He promised the American people hope and change, and now we see a nation that has lost hope," Hensarling said. "But they have seen the change. Almost 2 million more Americans have lost their jobs under his economic policies."

In his address to the crowd, House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor took every opportunity to dispute the idea that Republicans are facing serious divisions within their ranks.

"We are united. We are united in the cause that we've come here ... we are united as a conference. There's no question we are united going forward into this year," Cantor said.

It's only when you leave the safe space of the Republican retreat's press room and venture into the hotel lobby that you start to hear a different version of the facts.

"There were some challenges in December for sure. Those challenges still remain," said Republican Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho.

Simpson pointed out that there are only a few weeks left before unemployment benefits and the payroll tax cut expire again, and he would like to see his party dodge the divisions they exposed in December and try to get together as a team.

"That's always something that has to be re-emphasized time and time again — that teamwork is how we get something done," Simpson said.

California Rep. David Dreier said he believes Republicans can pull it together.

"We're going to get there. I mean, in the next few weeks, we're going to do the one-year extension of unemployment insurance and the one-year extension of the payroll tax," Dreier said. "Those are the priorities, and that has to be done in the next few weeks."

The problem is that some GOP lawmakers say they still don't believe unemployment benefits should be extended again, and they worry that the payroll tax cut increases the deficit without stimulating the economy.

These members of Congress, many of them freshmen and Tea Party-affiliated, could decide to take up the fight again within their own party. That would undermine any "unified message" coming out of the House Republican leadership.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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