Williamsburg, Va. — Due to the rainy weather, House Republicans aren’t having a grand time at their retreat this week, which is being held at the sprawling Kingsmill Resort. Few members have played golf, or ventured to nearby Colonial Williamsburg. But inside the hotel, which is surrounded by armed guards, Republicans are quietly planning their debt-limit strategy and talking politics in a ballroom overlooking the James River.
So far, prominent pollsters and journalists, such as Charlie Cook and William Kristol, have hosted briefings. During meals, several motivational speakers, including a blind mountain climber, have attempted to inspire the casually dressed lawmakers. There has also been much discussion about marketing. Patrick Doyle, chief executive of Domino’s Pizza, gave a well-received talk about selling a damaged brand to a modern audience.
But for the most part, the theme running through the sessions has been unity. As the next series of legislative battles nears, House GOP leaders are asking Republicans to stick together, especially after the internal clashes during the fiscal-cliff debate. Speaker John Boehner, for his part, has been a low-key presence. “He has been sitting back and listening,” says a Republican member. “He wants us to think more and fight less.”
Here are ten takeaways.
A short-term debt-limit extension is possible. Republicans are mulling the “possible virtue” of a short-term extension of the debt limit, according to Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Ryan and other House leaders see such a move as the best way to engage President Barack Obama on spending cuts in the coming months. They believe that once the immediate threat of default is off the table, Republicans will be in a better bargaining position; the less drama, the better. “The last thing we should be debating is whether we’re going to put the nation’s full faith and credit at risk,” Representative Greg Walden of Oregon said at a press conference.
Conservatives are divided on the debt limit. Many members are open to the idea of extending the debt limit into the spring, but it’s by no means a done deal. There is already a divide over strategy, and whether the debt limit should be used as leverage. Some members want to tie spending cuts to the debt ceiling, while others see the upcoming defense sequester and continuing resolution to fund the government as safer battlefields. To GOP leaders, the political and economic consequences of the sequester, or of a government shutdown due to a failure to extend the government’s funding, look far more manageable than default. Meanwhile, a growing group of conservative members is pushing for a balanced-budget amendment to be attached to a short-term extension, so nothing is settled.
Paul Ryan is a behind-the-scenes leader. Ryan, who has been relatively quiet since the presidential election, has stepped back into the spotlight. On Thursday, the Budget Committee chairman surprised reporters by holding an impromptu press conference, and he drew notice from his colleagues for his extemporaneous remarks, in which he backed the idea of a short-term debt-limit extension and boosted Boehner. As the embattled speaker looked on, Ryan assured backbenchers that Boehner is listening to him and other conservative members.
The Boehner rebels didn’t rebel. As Boehner slowly made his way around the lobby and conference room in a bright red sweater, he was greeted warmly. Apparently, almost all House Republicans have personal affection for the speaker, and that includes many of his biggest political critics. In fact, the so-called Boehner rebels (the dozen GOP lawmakers who did not support the speaker’s reelection) did not give Boehner headaches at the retreat. There were no unseemly outbursts or in-session shout fests, just a few mild strategic quarrels.
Boehner rediscovered his mojo. Early on Thursday, Representative Joe Barton of Texas gave an emotional speech about the debt and its effect on his younger family members. He rallied Republicans to get behind conservative reforms, and to back only legislation that is supported by a majority of the conference. Then, as he spoke quickly about the need to get the whole conference behind bills, Barton mistakenly referred to the House GOP as a group of “218.” “The number is 234,” Boehner interrupted. Members cheered the speaker’s gentle retort.
“Rape” is a four-letter word. Pollster Kellyanne Conway drew rave reviews for her upbeat presentation, in which she lectured members about how to appeal to women. Sources say hundreds of House Republicans sat through the talk, hoping to learn more about how to better craft their message to women on economic and social issues. Most pointedly, Conway advised Republicans to tread carefully on language, particularly on sensitive matters such as rape, which she called a “four-letter word” that should be used sparingly, or not at all.
Lower expectations are rampant. Erik Weihenmayer, a blind mountain climber who made it to the top of Mount Everest a decade ago, spoke on Wednesday night, and his story gave chills to many House Republicans. But that was a rare moment of encouragement for Republicans to accomplish all of their goals, regardless of the obstacles. Mainly, the sessions underscored the necessity of lower expectations during Obama’s second term. “Suck it up,” Kristol told the crowd when pressed about the limits of Republican power.
Minority outreach is a priority. Greg Walden, who is also chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, acknowledged the obvious at his press conference: Republicans have done a poor job of reaching out to Hispanics and other minority groups. But he predicted that House Republicans would make improvements in the run-up to the 2014 election. “We just have bad communications in many cases,” Walden said. On Friday, the topic will be explored at length in a morning session featuring Ana Navarro, a Hispanic political strategist.
The leadership team isn’t falling apart. After Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Whip Kevin McCarthy voted against the Senate’s fiscal-cliff deal, most pundits saw those votes as a break with Boehner, and buzzed about a potential rift in the House GOP ranks. But in Williamsburg, Boehner and Cantor took questions from members together, and projected a united front. McCarthy also worked closely with his fellow leaders. It was all a not-so-subtle signal that the whispers of palace intrigue had been overblown, and that the top three Republicans remain a team.
House Republicans are downbeat. The shadow of the Romney-Ryan ticket’s defeat was as pervasive as the fog coming off the James River. Republicans spent much of the day wondering about what went wrong in the 2012 election, and about how they need to change. Instead of celebrating their coveted majority status, members turned up in droves, notepads in hand, for sessions with titles such as “Turning It Around,” “Sailing above Rough Seas,” and “Using Adversity to Our Advantage by Working Together.” They were hopeful, but not cheery.
— Robert Costa is Washington editor of National Review. Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review.