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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