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By Susan Cornwell and Richard Cowan
CAMBRIDGE, Md., Feb 1 (Reuters) - Republican lawmakers, hoping to ride the disastrous rollout of President Barack Obama's healthcare law to victory in the November congressional elections, are trying to put internal fights behind them and unify around a proposed Obamacare replacement.
During a two-day retreat on Maryland's frozen eastern shore, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives also sought to shed the image they acquired during last October's government shutdown as a cantankerous opposition party.
The smaller-government Tea Party faction and more moderate "establishment" House Republicans are linking arms around a strategy for the first time since they took control of the chamber in early 2011 - if all goes according to plans hatched during the closed-door retreat 85 miles east of Washington.
Republicans have seized on "Obamacare" as a way of turning around their image. Instead of just insisting on its repeal, as they have done nearly 50 times in House votes, House Speaker John Boehner's troops plan to craft legislation to replace Obama's healthcare law that aims to provide health coverage for millions of the uninsured.
"I think this is going to be very unifying," said Representative Phil Roe, a Tea Party-backed Republican, obstetrician and chief sponsor of a healthcare reform proposal that could move through the House in coming months.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's declaration that Republicans would hold a floor vote this year on an alternative to Obamacare was one of the biggest applause lines of the retreat, Roe told Reuters.
Maybe it was former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz, a keynote speaker at the retreat, who gave Republicans the motivation they needed to focus on working as a team.
Or maybe it was the lack of an immediate fiscal crisis that made Republicans conclude that they will have to do something to fill out the rest of the year before the November congressional elections.
"I think in order to maximize our year, it's important that we show the American people that we're not just the opposition party, we're actually the alternative party," Boehner told reporters at a Thursday press conference.
Republican Representative Raul Labrador of Idaho, like Roe a Tea Party favorite, told Reuters the party wants a "positive" and "forward-looking" agenda.
"My sense is that party leaders are desperate to improve the party brand name as they move into the midterm election year," said Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution. And that, she said, "entails finding an agenda that Republicans can be for."
"This strikes me as strategic, rather than evidence of the mellowing of ideological differences within the party," Binder added.
Divisions remain, in particular on immigration reform, but Labrador says many Republicans don't want to debate it this year because their differences would then be on display and possibly hurt the party's chances of taking control of the Senate in November.
Hispanics, a fast-growing segment of the U.S. population, voted overwhelming for Obama, a Democrat, in the 2012 presidential election. Some Republicans have expressed concern about hurting their party for years to come by continuing to alienate Hispanics on the immigration issue.
Boehner grabbed headlines at the retreat by floating a set of principles for immigration legislation that included legalizing millions of immigrants who either entered the United States illegally or overstayed their visas.
But Boehner also told the gathering: "Nothing has been decided (on immigration). We're here to listen," according to Roe. A "free-flow" discussion followed, Roe said.
In some ways, it might be easier for House Republicans to find unity in 2014 than it was in 2011, 2012 or 2013.
None of their rank-and-file is publicly clamoring for a deficit-reduction showdown or threatening a default on the country's debt - the issues that made the past three years so chaotic in Washington.
Instead, Republicans will try to tout their own answer to the country's healthcare problem while knowing that anything they do is unlikely to pass the Democratic-controlled Senate or escape an Obama veto.
In the aftermath of October's government shutdown, Washington has seen an unusually smooth operation of government.
Major bills - a two-year budget deal, a spending bill to execute the first year of that deal, and a renewal of a massive farm law - have all passed recently without the histrionics that marked the past three years.
That does not mean that the Tea Party movement has thrown in the towel and is marching lock-step behind more establishment Republicans like Boehner, or that House Republicans have realigned themselves for the long-term.
Republicans "smell victory. It's amazing what the prospect of a good election will do for party unity," said Larry Sabato, who heads University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
"Sometimes it's just a papering over the differences until after the election," Sabato said, predicting that there will be plenty of time after November's vote to see party divisions re-emerge. (Additional reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Caren Bohan and Ken Wills)
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