Republicans In Congress To Talk Strategy At 2-Day Retreat

Jan 15, 2015
Originally published on January 15, 2015 3:07 pm
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now that Republicans control both chambers of Congress, the pressure is on to convey a clear message and to get things done. GOP lawmakers have decided to spend a couple days in Hershey, Pennsylvania. It's known as the sweetest place on Earth.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It is not to get a chocolate fix. They're meeting to discuss policy. It's the first joint retreat for House and Senate Republicans in a decade.

GREENE: NPR congressional reporter Juana Summers came in to chat before leaving for Hershey to cover the Republican gathering. Hey, Juana.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

GREENE: So it's really that unusual for House and Senate Republicans to get together and go on a retreat?

SUMMERS: It really is, David. As you said, it's been 10 years now. And of course this comes at a time where the House has a historic Republican majority, Republicans now with control of the Senate. Despite all that, these are two chambers of Congress that look like they could be on different planets. They operate rather differently. Republicans tell us that the purpose of this retreat is to try to find some synergy and to create a unified legislative agenda, something that has been lacking and could be easier said than done.

GREENE: Synergy being something that the party has acknowledged that they kind of need now that they are - you know, are controlling all of Congress and then there's more pressure on them to have a unified message. What issues are really important if that's the goal here?

SUMMERS: You're exactly right. They're going to be under an immense amount of pressure. And this week, they will be talking about big policy issues like tax reform, budget reconciliation, health care. But the biggest issue facing Republicans that I think will really dominate conversations is immigration.

And here's one example of just how far apart members of this party are on this issue. The House voted yesterday on a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security, but House Republicans used this bill as a way to roll back several of President Obama's actions on immigration. Among those is last month's action allowing close family members of those now in the United States legally to stay, as well as the president's 2012 program allowing children brought by their parents to this country illegally to stay here. While that bill passed in the House, it's likely to have a lot of trouble in the Senate, getting opposition from Democrats and even some moderate Republicans. And frankly, even if it does reach the president's desk, it is likely to face a presidential veto. So there is no question that that will come up during the course of the retreat.

The question really is, though, just how much agreement can Republicans find? Many members and staffers that I've spoken with say they don't expect to see a big immigration takeaway. The 300 or so members that'll be there over these two days just are so far apart. But it's really important, they say, to get in the room and have that conversation and start figuring out what the path forward is.

GREENE: Well, whether there's a takeaway on issues like immigration or not, I wonder, are we going to know about it? Or is this really the party going behind closed doors at what they're calling a retreat to figure this stuff out? But, you know, we might not know exactly, you know, what they've talked about or if they've reached some sort of agreement.

SUMMERS: I've covered a couple retreats like this. And typically, as they go, we as reporters don't see a whole lot. They do a lot of their talking in small groups and conference rooms behind closed doors with maybe one or two press conferences or members who want to come by and say hello. But here's what I can tell you - members of Congress will be hearing from a roster of speakers. That includes former "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno, former Prime Minister of Britain Tony Blair, as well as American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks. So maybe a couple big names will trot out - throw some details that have leaked out over the last couple weeks.

GREENE: You know, as a Pennsylvanian, when I think of Hershey, I go there for Hersheypark. I go there to think about chocolate. It's the sweetest place on Earth. Why have Republicans decided this is the spot?

SUMMERS: We've chatted with a lot of people familiar with putting together this retreat. And one of the biggest selling points for Hershey is frankly space. You're bringing in all of the Republicans in the Senate, all of the Republicans in the House, their staffs. That is a lot of people to find housing for, conference room to hold. And it's also pretty close to Washington, just a short drive up the highway.

But there is also some political significance to Hershey. This place has played host in the past to a number of organized bipartisan retreats meant to promote civility among members of Congress. Those started nearly a decade ago. As Republicans are kind of looking to find their own message, find their path, with at least one big issue, like immigration, hanging in the balance, maybe they're hoping some of the sweetness in Hershey rubs off a little bit.

GREENE: All right. NPR congressional reporter Juana Summers will be covering the GOP retreat in Hershey. Have a good trip. Thanks, Juana.

SUMMERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.