The GOP has a lot to prove. Now that the campaign against President Obama is over and its new members are sworn in, a party retreat is the first real chance leaders have to convince members to go along with their Republican vision.
Most of the Republican Party's agenda items were already laid out on the campaign trail in the fall when it took back the Senate and expanded its majority in the House of Representatives. Leaders have been clear that the GOP's main objectives over the next few months are to bring back regular order, approve the Keystone XL pipeline, and dismantle Obamacare.
How exactly to prove their legislative chops in the shadow of the White House, however, is the obstacle Republican leadership needs to begin to overcome this week.
In the first two weeks of the 114th Congress, Republican members have already faced strong headwinds from the White House in promoting their agenda. The president has threatened to veto a bill with bipartisan support to construct the Keystone oil-sands pipeline and repeatedly signaled that any significant overhaul of the Affordable Care Act is a nonstarter. This week, the White House added to its list of veto threats a Department of Homeland Security funding bill that rolls back the president's executive action on immigration.
Over the next two days, after their roughly three-hour bus trip Wednesday from D.C. to Pennsylvania's Hershey Lodge, lawmakers will have an opportunity to plan exactly how to execute their policy goals. The first step is getting the Senate and House members on the same page, a rare but welcome retreat challenge—this is the first time in 10 years that the annual break from the beltway has included both senators and House members.
"The fact that both the Senate and House Republicans are coming together and seriously discussing a unified agenda for this Congress demonstrates that the new majorities in both the House and the Senate are not just about being a blocking majority or a check and balance to the president, but also that we are looking to solve big problems," said Rep. Andy Barr of Kentucky.
While the Hershey resort hosting members boasts a wide variety of activities, from falconry to segway tours and golf outings, members will have a busy schedule of breakout sessions and presentations to sit through. Organizers of the event say there are specific policy sessions on immigration, health care, and the process of budget reconciliation, a tactic that requires only a simple majority of votes in the Senate and a strategy some top Republicans are eyeing as a potential way to pass corporate tax reform.
Lawmakers will also hear from a slew of guest speakers, ranging from the serious to the more absurd. Comedian Jay Leno kicked off the retreat with a routine Wednesday night and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair also will address the group. Other speakers include conservative columnist Peggy Noonan, Aspen Institute President Walter Isaacson, and American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks.
The retreat comes just two weeks into the start of the Republican-run Congress, so new members will also be briefed on ethics rules and learn more about how to talk with the media. Each member covers the cost of his or her own trip, which is about $700. The nonprofit Congressional Institute organized the retreat and will hold a reception for about 50 of its donors to meet and greet members of Congress.
But the most notable session is one that many Republicans have long waited for: the chance to hear from Congress's two chief leaders, both members of the GOP. It's the first time in eight years that Republicans have controlled of both chambers, and the first time in Obama's tenure that they'll have the opportunity to roll back the president's agenda they've campaigned against over the last six years. But with new power, the party's leaders will be forced to confront tough decisions.
At the retreat, House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, neither of whom has an especially cozy relationship with the far-right factions of the party, will have to remind their emboldened rank and file of the reality: There is still a Democratic president in the White House. After hearing from members during a question-and-answer session, the leaders will have to decide for themselves just how willing they are to let Obama impede the Republican Party from moving forward with its own agenda.
"What could cripple them is the veto threat," says Rick Tyler, a Republican strategist and former adviser to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. "Leading is being able to articulate a conservative agenda regardless of what the president wants to do. It does not occur to me that either Boehner or McConnell is prepared to do that."
The retreat will give Boehner and McConnell a chance to get on the same page as they manage the differences between their two roles as well. In upcoming months, Boehner will have to decide whether to find consensus among a handful of intransigent conservative members who just a week ago revolted and voted against him for speaker, or to ignore them, and rely on Democratic votes to get must-pass legislation across the finish line. McConnell, meanwhile, faces his own two-pronged problem. With the 2016 election cycle right around the corner, McConnell must manage presidential ambitions within his caucus while also promoting an agenda that can attract Democratic votes and overcome filibusters and veto threats.
Despite a contentious first few weeks, however, even some of Boehner's toughest critics were looking forward to a retreat as an opportunity to start fresh.
"I could look around here and imagine a cold shoulder, but I'd have to look for it," said Rep. Steve King of Iowa, who was one of 25 members to vote against Boehner last week. "I think the mood in our conference has been stronger since the vote last Tuesday."
The competing needs of the two leaders will likely be on display over the next two days, but many still said they were happy to see the House and Senate finally getting together.
"This is a chance for us to be on the same page, and that is one of the messages to come out of the election," said Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind. "Voters expect the Republicans to be working together."
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