Boehner pleads for unity at GOP retreat in Harbor East

A former plastics salesman, House Speaker John A. Boehner stood before the 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, held Friday at the Marriott Waterfront in Harbor East, 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 ready to go at it again.

Boehner appealed to a higher cause, seeking to leave behind 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 in a private session, according to a person in the room who requested anonymity to discuss the meeting.

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.

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, a Nebraska Republican. "Unity, unity, unity."

Was it working? "We'll see," Terry said.

But the dynamics of leading a large, fractured majority remain unchanged, and Boehner retains as slippery a grip as ever.

As an illustration, conservative California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher hurried from the closed sessions Friday to distribute his alternative budget proposals, even as the party's budget chairman, Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, was holding a news conference down the hall.

Several Maryland Republicans, including former Rep. Helen Delich Bentley and state Sen. Nancy Jacobs of Harford County, wandered through the hotel's halls on their way to an afternoon fundraiser for Boehner. The event was hosted by Maryland GOP Reps. Andy Harris and Roscoe G. Bartlett, along with former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

"There's a very strong sense of collegiality in the conference," Ehrlich said. "I know divisions make news, but it's a pretty solid conference."

The yearly retreat has taken place in Baltimore a handful of times over the past few years, and its presence Friday was barely felt in the surrounding Harbor East neighborhood, apart from some stepped-up security. Most of the retreat — including a speech by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — occurred behind closed doors.

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