Amid Friction, GOP Retreat Focuses on the Possible

Republican leaders lay out how they will handle a narrow Senate majority and a Democratic White House.

HERSHEY Pa.—Republican leaders are preaching unity at a joint retreat here, promising a persistent and aggressive policy push aimed at wearing down Senate Democrats to achieve legislative victories.

Yet even amid the talk of togetherness at the sprawling vacation resort in the shadow of the nation's most famous chocolate factory, there are signs of the persistent internal friction that has plagued the GOP since the party retook power in the House in 2010.

So leaders of the widest Republican House majority in a generation are trying to manage the expectations of their restless, conservative conference while figuring out how to work in concert with a slight Senate GOP majority—and even with President Obama..

"The House is going to work its will. The Senate's going to work its will. And then we'll either get into conference or we'll find some way to resolve the difference. That's what we call regular order. That's the process," Speaker John Boehner told reporters Thursday. "There are 535 of us on Capitol Hill, and to try to get all of us to agree is not an easy job."¦ But I think each of the chambers has to do what they're capable of doing and then we'll try to resolve the difference."

At a private session of House Republicans on Thursday morning, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy promised to repeatedly send bills to the Senate. Even if the upper chamber sends back a watered-down version, he said, the House will send back another more conservative version. He suggested members focus on bills that passed the House with veto-proof majorities, implying that making Democrats repeatedly vote against such bills would cause them electoral trouble back home.

Majority Whip Steve Scalise, meanwhile, walked the conference through a presentation about how to pass bills in a Republican Congress with a Democratic president, focusing on President Clinton's signing of welfare reform legislation in the 1990s.

"The year was 1996," he began, according to sources in the room, flashing photos depicting current members that year, such as Boehner and Rep. Elise Stefanik, who was 12. He then played a video of Republicans over the past 20 years claiming the welfare changes as one of the largest Republican policy victories ever.

Then, Scalise noted that Clinton signed the final welfare reform bill 17 months after initial House passage, and only after vetoing the legislation twice, and after countless back-and-forth between the House and Senate and a conference committee. He gave special recognition to Rep. Lamar Smith, who sat on that conference committee.

McCarthy's and Scalise's message: If members do not expect 100 percent of their policies to be enacted right away, are persistent, and keep their fights internal, they will eventually end up with policy they can claim as a victory for years to come.

Yet leaders were challenged immediately by forces in the party who have no interest in negotiating with Obama, and who don't believe Obama will negotiate with them.

The conference opened up the mics for comment, and Rep. Steve King rose to tell leadership that only a year ago, when they held a retreat in Cambridge, Md., the central message was that Obama cannot be trusted. He said the president will not abide by laws Congress passes, so they should immediately turn to messaging bills, giving up hope that Republican policy will pass.

"We should not have our sights set too high about what we can accomplish and put into law as effective policy because we have a president who will veto most everything good," King said in an interview, characterizing his remarks. "But what we can do though is lay good ideas out, send them to the president's desk, and in doing so we lay the foundation for the debate for the next president of the Unites States."

Furthermore, the tension between the House and Senate was evident at the retreat. "That's the struggle," said one member, who spoke anonymously to candidly discuss the private retreat. "Do what we think the House can, or what we think the Senate can?"

Rep. Charlie Dent, who represents Hershey, told reporters that members of the House are coming to grips with the realities of the Senate, noting wryly that not only do Republicans have a slim majority there but also that the chamber has "two speeds: slow and glacial."

"The issue is, are these expectations realistic? And I think more members are having their reality checks on some of these issues," Dent said.

For their part, Senate leaders spent Thursday urging his House colleagues to maintain a united front, acknowledging the difficulty of getting six Democratic votes to pass anything through the upper chamber—much less earning the president's signature.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was optimistic in addressing reporters Thursday afternoon. The new majority leader listed several potential areas of agreement between both chambers and the president, based on his conversations with Boehner and the White House over the past few weeks. Those areas include cybersecurity, a renewal of the president's trade promotion authority, and, potentially, an overhaul of the tax code and infrastructure reforms.

"The president doesn't set the agenda in the Senate, but we're anxious to make progress for the American people," McConnell said.

McConnell said that he was dubious that Republicans could get an agreement with the president on tax reform, a major priority for conservatives this Congress, but he said that if they are able to come to an understanding, now "would be the perfect time to do that."

Other parts of the retreat were more unifying. Former Tonight Show host Jay Leno added some levity to the opening evening Wednesday, joking that he commiserates with Boehner, because he too knows what it's like to have a bunch of young guys gunning for your job.

At a lunch session Thursday, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair discussed the situation in the Middle East, particularly with regard to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and members left the session raving about the former head of state's wisdom.