WILLIAMSBURG, Va. (AP) — Celebration doesn't seem to be high on the agenda as House Republicans, their majority renewed by the voters last fall, lay the groundwork for another challenge to President Barack Obama over federal spending.
And no wonder.
Their annual retreat this past week in Williamsburg had scarcely begun when they were told that disapproval ratings for Republicans in Congress had climbed to 64 percent in a poll completed a few days earlier. Only 27 percent of the public viewed them favorably in the survey, taken by David Winston, a respected Republican pollster.
A previous sounding by Winston at the very end of 2012 wasn't much better.
At the height of the controversy over the "fiscal cliff," the most recent clash with Obama, 49 percent of those surveyed said negotiations on the issue were difficult because the tea party-heavy GOP opposed the president out of political motives. While the public strongly favors reductions in spending, only 42 percent said Republicans were acting out of a desire to implement cuts and deal with a debt crisis — the reason party officials and lawmakers themselves repeated tirelessly.
The coming confrontation will occur over the debt limit. As Republicans left one type of retreat, they began another, scrapping the brave talk reminiscent of their heady days from 2011 when they threatened to send the government into an unprecedented default in hopes it would force the White House and congressional Democrats into cutting spending.
"No budget, no pay," is their newly unveiled slogan.
That means they are willing to let the Treasury borrow money for an additional three months without demanding cuts in exchange. Instead, members of Congress would have their pay withheld if the house they serve in, either the House or the Senate, failed to pass a budget within 90 days that included spending reductions.
That's aimed squarely at the Democratic-controlled Senate, which hasn't approved a budget in four years.
"This is the first step to get on the right track, reduce our deficit and get focused on creating better living conditions for our families and children. It's time to come together and get to work," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia said in a statement issued as the rank and file headed back to Washington.
Republicans had additional objectives. Congress and the administration face three deadlines in the coming months, and Republicans want to rearrange the order in which they occur.
The debt limit presumably will need to be raised first. On March 1, across-the-board spending cuts are scheduled to kick in at the Pentagon and other federal agencies. On March 27, funding expires for most of the government, and a partial shutdown will occur unless it is renewed.
Several Republican officials say the party's objective was to increase their leverage for negotiations with the White House and congressional Democrats by finessing a crisis over the debt limit, at least for the time being.
Nor did Republicans attempt to hide their political motivations. Within minutes of the end of the three-day retreat, the party's campaign committee announced an online petition drive "to tell Senate Democrats, if you don't pass a budget, you won't get paid."
Left unsaid was that Republicans had quietly bowed, at least temporarily, to Obama's insistence that they raise the borrowing limit without spending cuts in return.
"They will not collect a ransom in exchange for not crashing the American economy," the president said of Republicans a few days earlier. "What I will not do is to have that negotiation with a gun at the head of the American people."
For their part, Republicans said they were leaving their retreat at a golf resort in good spirits and good condition.
If so, that would mark a turnabout from the past few weeks, when they scrapped and squabbled loudly among themselves despite winning back-to-back House majorities that officials said are their largest since World War II.
Rep. John Boehner, architect of a Republican takeover of the House two years ago, was elected to a second term as speaker by a less-than-unified rank and file. Nine Republicans voted for an alternative, a 10th voted present and two more didn't vote. All the dissenters are on the political right, a far different dynamic than when Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi was elected speaker four years ago over a smattering of objections from political centrists.
A few days later, Republicans overwhelmingly opposed legislation to speed $50 billion in emergency relief to victims of Superstorm Sandy without making offsetting cuts elsewhere in the budget.
The bill passed on the strength of Democratic votes. Republicans, a party centered in the South, split along geographical as well as ideological lines as representatives from the storm-affected Northeastern states pleaded for solidarity.
"To my colleagues from states who have had disasters, some recently, who have decided that we need to change the rules of the game, shame on you," said Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J. "A new caucus should be formed. ... It should be the 'Hypocritical Caucus' because when you wanted the money five minutes before the storm was over, you didn't have any hesitation coming to us."
He then warned the tea party's deficit hawks they may as well try to change Mother Nature.
"Florida, good luck with no more hurricanes. California, congratulations. Did you get rid of the (San) Andreas Fault," he said of an earthquake region. "Mississippi's in a drought. Do you think you're never going to have a flood again? Who are you going to come to when you need these things?"
EDITOR'S NOTE — David Espo is chief congressional correspondent for The Associated Press.
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