GOP Retreat Could Be a Test for Boehner

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 28: House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) walks away after speaking to the media after attending the weekly House Republican conference at the U.S. Capitol January 28, 2014 in Washington, DC. Speaker Boehner spoke on various issues including tonight's State of the Union speech by U.S. President Barack Obama.
National Journal
Billy House
Jan. 28, 2014, 4:25 p.m.

As Re­pub­lic­ans head to a tony re­sort on Mary­land’s East­ern Shore for the rest of the week to dis­cuss strategy, is­sues like the debt ceil­ing and im­mig­ra­tion will loom large. But one ques­tion may rise above all: Can the détente between House Speak­er John Boehner and con­ser­vat­ives in his con­fer­ence weath­er a three-day, closed-door re­treat? “I think we’re go­ing to try to be a party that is uni­fied. We’re go­ing to try hard,” said Rep. John Carter of Texas. But with a lineup of di­vis­ive and volat­ile is­sues, he ad­mits, “It’ll be rough.” Boehner is set to out­line his pro­posed prin­ciples on im­mig­ra­tion to fel­low Re­pub­lic­ans on Thursday, even though many in his con­fer­ence do not see it as a pri­or­ity in an elec­tion year. More press­ing is how Re­pub­lic­ans handle ne­go­ti­ations with Pres­id­ent Obama and Sen­ate Demo­crats over rais­ing the na­tion’s $17 tril­lion debt lim­it, which Treas­ury Sec­ret­ary Jac­ob Lew has said must be raised by late Feb­ru­ary. Boehner said Tues­day that op­tions for gain­ing con­ces­sions con­tin­ue to nar­row be­cause the pres­id­ent won’t ne­go­ti­ate. He also said he wants it “dealt with soon­er rather than later,” in­dic­at­ing that he and oth­er party lead­ers are tem­per­ing ex­pect­a­tions about an all-out fight that could risk de­fault. But al­low­ing a vote to in­crease the ceil­ing without any con­ces­sions is sure to ag­grav­ate con­ser­vat­ives in and out­side the con­fer­ence. Rep. James Lank­ford of Ok­lahoma, chair­man of the House Re­pub­lic­an Policy Com­mit­tee, says an en­tire block of time dur­ing the re­treat is be­ing de­voted to the debt ceil­ing. He says there are law­makers who will ar­gue that Boehner and House Re­pub­lic­ans should stand firm. Con­ser­vat­ive voices out­side Con­gress may make sim­il­ar ar­gu­ments. In­deed, both Lank­ford and Boehner have said that a “clean” debt-ceil­ing bill can­not pass the House. But what the GOP con­fer­ence will ac­cept from Obama in re­turn — or how little — is un­cer­tain. “We have 230-plus Re­pub­lic­ans that all bring their own at­ti­tudes and their own dis­tricts,” Lank­ford said. “All of our dis­tricts don’t think alike. So, yeah, I’m quite con­fid­ent there will be some chaf­ing back and forth.” Still, Lank­ford in­sists that this is not shap­ing up to be a re­peat of the dy­nam­ics that led to last year’s gov­ern­ment shut­down. Rather, he hopes for a res­ol­u­tion “where we are mak­ing some for­ward pro­gress in re­du­cing the debt — per­haps with re­gard to man­dat­ory spend­ing — without the brink­man­ship of a po­ten­tial gov­ern­ment shut­down or de­fault.” He did not say what ideas Boehner may float. As the re­treat be­gins, Boehner and those on the right flank of his con­fer­ence have en­joyed a brief peri­od of re­l­at­ive ease. Boehner emerged from the shut­down in high re­gard among con­ser­vat­ives in his con­fer­ence, and the budget deal and sub­sequent ap­pro­pri­ations bill have yiel­ded sev­er­al weeks without open war­fare over fisc­al mat­ters. But some con­ser­vat­ive law­makers ex­pressed frus­tra­tion this week over the House agree­ment with the Sen­ate on a farm bill, and that could carry over in­to the re­treat. “It’s very dif­fi­cult for us to pass any­thing in good faith here, out of con­cern that when it re­turns from the Sen­ate it will be a dis­aster that Demo­crats will vote for and foist on the Amer­ic­an people,” said Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ar­iz. He ad­ded: “We have a re­spons­ib­il­ity to an­ti­cip­ate all of that and do what we can.” The re­treat is apt to start out in a friendly fash­ion. Fin­anced in part by the non­profit Con­gres­sion­al In­sti­tute, it will be­gin Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon with a dis­cus­sion led by three journ­al­ists who will spec­u­late: “What if there had not been a Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­ity?” Amid work­shops, lunch­eons, din­ners, and guest speak­ers — some of them re­peat at­tendees, like former col­legi­ate foot­ball coach Lou Holtz and poll­ster Frank Luntz — are ses­sions de­voted to “Real Health­care Re­form,” “Amer­ica’s Fisc­al Crisis,” and “Fix­ing a Broken Im­mig­ra­tion Sys­tem.” There’s also one en­titled “Pro­tect­ing Tax­pay­ers and Hold­ing the Ad­min­is­tra­tion Ac­count­able.” No Re­pub­lic­ans head­ing to Cam­bridge, Md., were openly pre­dict­ing big in­tern­al fights. But Rep. Tom Graves of Geor­gia said that di­vis­ive is­sues like im­mig­ra­tion will mean that Boehner and oth­er lead­ers will “have to tread very del­ic­ately.” “Wheth­er it should be dealt with now, this year, this time, this day, or an­oth­er time, is an­oth­er ques­tion, I ima­gine,” Graves said, adding, “If you’re go­ing to have an is­sue such as that, you’ve got to get it right.” Franks was more blunt: “He’s stuck between a rock and a hard place — and an­oth­er rock.”

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