BALTIMORE – House Republicans, intent on healing internal divisions and developing a unified message and legislative agenda for an election year, kicked off their annual three-day policy retreat on Thursday afternoon ready to receive some cold, hard facts about where they stand in the public’s opinion – if not each other’s.
In fact, their arrivals here at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront hotel, some in busloads, follow a feisty closed-door meeting on Wednesday at the Capitol, where many members aired their disappointment in how 2011 played out.
At several points during the Wednesday session, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., were even pressed by rank-and-file members as to whether they might be working at odds with each other.
“They didn’t answer, really. They just basically listened,” said one senior House Republican, among the earliest to arrive at the hotel on Thursday. “Hopefully, all of this tension and a more unified message can be worked out over these next few days.”
Cantor, arriving at the hotel, offered: “Obviously, we’re here to focus on what the agenda will be for the year,” including, he said, an emphasis that Republicans are the party of prosperity. He answered in the affirmative when asked if unity will be a part of that.
Later on Thursday afternoon, in his remarks to colleagues behind closed doors opening the retreat, Cantor hinted at some of last year’s GOP problems. He said the House Republican majority, which he noted includes 89 freshman members, has been about rejecting the status quo and offering “change.”
“But we learned this year that progress must be more incremental than some of us would have liked. To implement our policies, we have a lot of work to do," Cantor said, in excerpts of his remarks provided by his aides. “To win this election, to implement our agenda, we’ve got to lay out our vision in a way that people understand. If we don’t, we all recognize what will happen.”
This year’s “Congress of Tomorrow Issues Conference” is to be the latest rendition of what has been an annual event sponsored by the Alexandria, Va.-based Congressional Institute. House Democrats have a similar retreat set for next week.
With the new legislative year set to launch in earnest next week with President Obama’s scheduled State of the Union address, Boehner and his 242-member House majority are clearly trying to use this year’s retreat to start a rebound from the setbacks and divisions that marked their first year in the majority.
Unlike their retreat two years ago, when Republicans hosted a visit from Obama, including a combative question-and-answer session, and last year, when they hosted then-potential 2012 presidential candidates Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the emphasis this time is clearly more toward soul-searching. (Organizers insist Gingrich will not appear again, despite rumors in the hotel that he will.)
That focus inward comes as many of the members interviewed say they see their once-cocky new House majority as having failed to deliver on promises to force change in how Washington works, on such items as cutting the budget or in the late December standoff on a payroll-tax holiday.
Much of the blame that they pass around, at least publicly, is attributed to being only about one-half of one-third of government. More privately, complaints run the gamut – from a speaker viewed as too willing to cave to the White House, to Boehner lieutenants who send out conflicting signals or even angle against him, to an unwillingness of some members to bend for their colleagues on almost anything.
All the while, they watch as Obama and Democrats work to seize on the low opinion of Congress.
And it is that topic – how they are faring as a group in polling, as well as potential strategies and themes that can impact that – that is the focus of their initial closed-door work session on Thursday following private opening remarks by Boehner and Cantor.
David Winston of the Winston Group is among those speaking during that “polling landscape” session. Republican super strategist Ed Gillespie and pollster Frank Luntz also are on hand for the retreat, and they are expected to speak at later workshops.
Several members, including freshman Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wis., say they see no lingering anger from the frank discussions that took place in the closed conference meeting on Wednesday. They say they hope their leaders and their colleagues can use these three days in Baltimore to move forward and coalesce behind a unified message and legislative strategy in this presidential election year.
“People like to look forward much more than look back,” added Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., the Rules Committee chairman.
Rank-and-file members arrived having been told by Republican Conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, that this year’s retreat will include more working sessions where members will actively participate, as opposed to past years when the focus was more on policy-expert presentations and issue sessions.
Three major sessions of the retreat are to focus on jobs and economic growth, budget and spending, and health care and Medicare, which will be moderated by Rep. Kevin Brady, R- Texas, Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Republican Policy Committee Chairman Tom Price, R-Ga., respectively.
Set to be the keynote speaker at Thursday night’s dinner is Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. A dinner on Friday night is to be headlined by an address from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Others to speak during the retreat include former Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, and former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs.
As the Republicans go about their planning and strategizing in Baltimore through Saturday morning, there is a significant police presence in the hotel and the surrounding streets, and police dogs occasionally can be seen. Inside, there is a more relaxed atmosphere, as attendees arrived and are making their way around the hotel in an array of suits, jeans, sweaters, and, yes, even corduroy.