By Paul Kane January 15 at 12:55 PM
HERSHEY, Pa. – Congressional Republicans are engaged an intensive day of reflection and preparation for their first session with majority control at both ends of the Capitol in eight years.
In a rare joint retreat together at America’s favorite chocolate-infused resort town, House and Senate Republicans are working their way through a series of panel discussions trying to iron out their differences in both politics and policy.
With the 2016 presidential race quickly taking shape, a large contingent of Republicans are pushing a conservative agenda that isn’t too sharply edged, hoping to set the stage for their eventual White House nominee.
But there’s a smaller — but more-vocal — bloc that wants to press the most conservative agenda possible, arguing that by demonstrating their principles Republicans can best position themselves for longer term victories.
“I hope we’re not going into this retreat saying, ‘Alright boys, how do we impact the election in 2016?’ If that’s the purpose of this retreat, I’m going to be very disappointed. We should be working on our own knitting, on our own agenda,” Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), a staunch conservative, said in an interview on the eve of the retreat.
The proceedings in Hershey will be led by the respective chairmen of the House and Senate Republican conferences, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers (R-Wash.) and Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who said the gathering’s afternoon sessions would be dominated by three contentious topics: budget procedure, health care and immigration laws.
Republicans a year ago also saved immigration until the very end of their busiest day of the three-day gathering. Last year’s session produced a vague set of principles that the House GOP tentatively supported on immigration and border security, though the 800-word document went nowhere legislatively.
Now, after Wednesday’s passage in the House of a stringent bill funding the Department of Homeland Security, the issue is once again front and center. Senate Republicans know that the measure – which contains a policy rider voiding President Obama’s executive actions shielding millions of illegal immigrants from deportation – is likely dead on arrival in the Senate, where Democrats have enough votes to filibuster the measure.
“The magic number in the Senate is 60,” Thune said, acknowledging the likely defeat of the legislation there.
Congressional Republicans have until Feb. 27 to figure out how to fund the security agencies or else those portions of the government could shut down.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), one of the strongest opponents of most immigration proposals, said that he wants to see every GOP presidential candidate taking a position in favor of the House legislation. “Yes, because at the core of this is the constitution and the rule of law,” King said Wednesday before jumping on a bus for the Hershey retreat.
The session has not drawn potential presidential candidates, a departure from the 2011 retreat in Baltimore. There, two future candidates (Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry) as well as other national figures (Haley Barbour, then the governor of Mississippi, and Bob McDonnell, who was then riding high as Virginia’s governor and whispered about as a potential vice president) made appearances.
From Wednesday afternoon to Friday’s lunchtime closing session this week, the two most prominent speakers are expected to be comedian Jay Leno and former British prime minister Tony Blair.
It’s the first time in a decade that the two caucuses held their retreats together, a recognition that the two sides need to work closely together now that they both have the majority. Turnover has been so high among congressional Republicans the last decade, Thune noted, that very few members of the House or Senate were still in office when that 2005 joint retreat was held.
That’s also the last time that Republicans attempted to use special parliamentary fast-track procedures to approve budget-and-tax measures, as they controlled Congress and the White House at the time. Some Republicans are advocating that same “reconciliation” process for advancing tax and health policy in the year ahead.
Fewer than 40 percent of lawmakers currently serving in the House were in office at the time.
Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.