STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Of course, the winner of the Republican nomination will face President Obama in November. Democrats have expected to face Mitt Romney and, in fact, have already attacked him. Some have shown glee in recent days at the prospect of facing Newt Gingrich, who scores relatively poorly in national approval ratings right now. But the president's most preferred opponent may actually be Congress.

Republicans in Congress just finished a year of frustration and widespread public disapproval of their policies. So this past weekend, the House GOP gathered in Baltimore to regroup and set out their priorities for 2012.

NPR's Andrea Seabrook joined them and filed this report.

ANDREA SEABROOK, BYLINE: The last battle scar of 2011 came in December. House Republicans painted themselves into a corner on extending unemployment benefits and the payroll tax cut, exposing their internal rifts and the loose control of their leaders. A PR fiasco, one GOP lawmaker called it. 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, their speaker, John Boehner, agreed to a short-term deal with the Democrats, pushing it through by a voice vote on an empty House floor. Republicans closed out the year in discord. So when Speaker Boehner gathered the House GOP in Baltimore this past weekend, there was really only one task at hand - reunify the party.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: Well, good afternoon, everyone.

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

BOEHNER: President Obama's policies have not helped our economy. As a matter of fact, his policies have made our economy worse.

SEABROOK: The Republicans' thesis statement for 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.

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

SEABROOK: Another Republican leader, Jeb Hensarling, said the party's singular focus this election year will be on President Obama.

REPRESENTATIVE JEB HENSARLING: He promised the American people hope and change, and now we see a nation that has lost hope. But they have seen the change. Almost two million more Americans have lost their jobs under his economic policies.

SEABROOK: And the GOP's number two guy, Eric Cantor, took every opportunity to dispute the idea that Republicans are facing serious divisions within their ranks.

REPRESENTATIVE ERIC CANTOR: 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.

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

REPRESENTATIVE MIKE SIMPSON: Yeah, there were some challenges in December, for sure. Those challenges still remain.

SEABROOK: Idaho Republican Mike Simpson points out that there are only a few weeks left before unemployment benefits and the payroll tax cut expire again. He would like to see his party dodge the divisions they exposed in December.

SIMPSON: 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.

SEABROOK: Sounds like that's a big issue this year.

SIMPSON: Yeah, it is. It is.

SEABROOK: California's David Dreier says he believes Republicans can pull it together.

REPRESENTATIVE DAVID DREIER: 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. Those are the priorities and that has to be done in the next few weeks.

SEABROOK: Problem is, off-microphone some GOP lawmakers say they still don't believe unemployment benefits should be extended again, and they worry the payroll tax cut adds to the deficit without stimulating the economy. These members of Congress, many of them freshman and Tea Party affiliated, could decide to take up the fight again within their own party. That would undermine any unified message out of the House Republican leadership. Andrea Seabrook, NPR News.

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INSKEEP: By the way, the website Real Clear Politics compiles polls showing the approval ratings for Congress, and in the past year it's been unusually interesting reading. The latest figure shows an approval rating for Congress of 13.3 percent. That is actually up a tiny bit from their all-time lows late last year. This, of course, is a rating for Congress as an institution. It's worth remembering that most individual incumbents do much better in their districts. Democrats have a narrow lead in the so-called generic ballot right now, in which voters are asked which party they plan to vote for in November.

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INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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