House Republicans are determined to start 2012 a lot better than the way 2011 ended.
After all, it could affect who's in charge in Washington come 2013.
The course for House Republicans to find their voice started Thursday afternoon as they journeyed to Baltimore's Inner Harbor for their annual issues retreat. The House GOP, punctuated with 87 freshmen and tea party loyalists, is still smarting from a brutal December fracas it waged with Democrats over renewing the payroll tax cut. House Republicans struggled to hit the right notes during that battle. It lost the public message war as factions sparred internally. House Republicans scrapped with the president, themselves and even Senate Republicans. Fissures emerged between top House GOP leaders.
Just days before Christmas, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) stemmed the blood-letting by signing off on a two-month extension of the payroll tax break. But Boehner's decision infuriated some conservative lawmakers. They accused the speaker of caving and blasted him for crafting the deal without a full-vetting by rank-and-file lawmakers. Less than a week before, House Republicans ignited a firestorm on an ugly telephone conference call as members aggressively vented to leaders about an interim payroll extension approved by the Senate. Boehner took no questions and allowed no comments when he convened another conference call a few days later to inform House Republicans about the temporary payroll tax legislation.
"We were picking the right fight," Boehner said. "But I would argue, we probably picked it at the wrong time."
So now Republicans are determined to settle their internecine squabbles as they hope to grow their House majority, seize control of the Senate and replace President Obama with one of their own in the White House.
On Wednesday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) hinted at the strategy Republicans will deploy to close ranks internally and use against Democrats in an election year.
"Our members are united around a realization that the polices that have been promoted by (the Obama) administration have not worked," Cantor said.
Both Boehner and Cantor expanded on that theme at the opening session of the GOP's Baltimore retreat Thursday.
"2012 will be a referendum on the president's policies," Boehner said. "We have a responsibility to use our majority to shine a spotlight on those policies and demand accountability from this administration."
Few tools in politics are as crucial as a foil. President Clinton found his in former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA). President Obama believes his is the Republican-led House. And now Republicans want to mirror Mr. Obama's gambit by making the president's approach to governing their focus.
Of course, President Obama presented Republicans with an immediate opportunity to do so on Thursday. That's when he backed up the State Department's decision to scrap a plan to build the Keystone pipeline from Canada to Texas.
Just a few hours earlier, Boehner suggested that Mr. Obama wanted to "put this off until it's convenient for him to make a decision. That means after the next election."
However, Republicans scrambled to man battle stations that afternoon once the president formally jettisoned the Keystone plan.
"President Obama is destroying tens of thousands of American jobs and shipping American energy security to the Chinese," blasted Boehner. "This fight is not going to go away. You can count on it."
Some Republicans immediately clamored for Boehner to make the Keystone pipeline a key provision of final negotiations on the payroll tax cut. After all, Boehner successfully ginned up support for the initial payroll tax plan once he stapled a requirement to build the pipeline to that package. Regardless of the final approach on the payroll tax break, Republicans were again able to coalesce around their ultimate totem: opposing the President of the United States.
To conservatives, the sting of December's experience is compounded by the failure of the GOP to make deeper spending cuts and avoid public train wrecks like the debt ceiling fight and at least one near-government shutdown.
But many have already moved on from December's histrionics over the payroll tax.
"It's just one of the bumps in the road here," said Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-MO).
Others, like freshman Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-MN) said some didn't like how abruptly Boehner halted the fisticuffs over the payroll tax. But he defers to Boehner's judgment.
"I think a lot of people were taken off guard here," Cravaack said. "But we elected (Boehner) for a reason. And he had to make the call."
Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-OH) is a Boehner confidante and former Congressional staffer who says "there's always going to be criticism" of the Speaker of the House. Tiberi notes that most of the resistance Boehner and others met over the payroll tax issue came from what he described as "a very vocal but small minority" in the House Republican Conference.
"It was a good learning experience for the speaker," Tiberi said. "He was trying to save us from ourselves."
Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) is one Republican who is consistently a burr in the saddle of leadership. Flake was particularly incensed at how the GOP handled the payroll tax debate as well as a litany of fiscal issues throughout 2011. But Flake defended Boehner against criticism that he shut off debate prematurely on the pre-Christmas payroll tax agreement.
"He's been criticized for listening too much, listening too little. This speaker does listen," Flake said. "I don't think that criticism of the speaker for not listening to the conference is valid."
Perhaps one emerging theme of the coming days is expectation management. The 87 House GOP freshmen stormed the Capitol with plans to immediately slash trillions of dollars in spending and to turn Washington on its ear. But running just the House and not the Senate or the White House has frustrated many.
"I just think we have to set realistic, clear expectations," said Rep. Tim Scott (R-SC), one of two freshmen who serve as delegates to the Republican braintrust. "When you're bringing in 87 new freshmen, you find yourself in the position where our expectations are significantly higher, maybe even unreachable."
That's why the GOP is looking toward this fall's election as the best opportunity to fundamentally change Washington. Eric Cantor highlighted that idea in his opening remarks in Baltimore.
"We learned this year that progress must be more incremental than some of us would have liked," Cantor said. "To implement our policies, we have a lot of work to do. To win this election, to implement our agenda, we've got to lay out our vision in a way that people understand."
So Republicans are now mining that political ore over the next few days in Baltimore. They hope to capitalize on it next week as President Obama visits the Capitol for his State of the Union speech. They'll soon have a Republican presidential nominee who will spar with the president on the stump for the rest of the year.
But the ultimate test for Republicans is how they fare at the ballot box this fall. And if they fail then, this coming December could be a lot worse for the GOP than last December.