Just 27 minutes after Senate Finance Committee chairman Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) unveiled a bill Tuesday afternoon to make it easier for high-skilled foreign workers to obtain jobs in the United States, a congressional aide sent a rebuttal to reporters in the form of an immigration handbook that Senator Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.) distributed to GOP lawmakers on Monday.
Such a rapid response effort may be more familiar to political operatives than policy wonks, but it’s just one illustration of the intramural debates that Republicans have to hash out now that they control both chambers of Congress. Those debates will dominate the upcoming Republican retreat in Hershey, Penn., according to a draft schedule obtained by National Review Online. “Time will permit extensive member participation and feedback,” the draft states. The GOP conferences will also discuss health care, budgets, and foreign policy. The lawmakers won’t settle all of these questions in two days, but they hope to mitigate some of the trust issues that have divided rank-and-file Republicans from their party’s leaders in both chambers. Increasing party unity has suddenly become a critical priority for leadership and backbenchers alike.
“That doesn’t mean we can’t have policy differences,” another Senate aide tells National Review Online. “But in a Senate that allows amendments and regular order, we will all be able to get votes on various priorities. That will prevent a lot of the infighting that happened previously when Republicans were in the minority and Reid shut us out.”
The retreat will kick off Wednesday with an opening session hosted by Senator John Thune (R., S.D.) and Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R., Wash.), the chairs of the House and Senate Republican conferences. Then the Republicans will attend an issue polling session on the “lay of the land” led by David Winston and Charlie Cook, according to the schedule. Jay Leno provides the entertainment on during dinner that evening.
On Thursday, they’ll open the day with religious services, including Mass for Roman Catholics and a Bible Study led by Representative Randy Forbes (R., Va.) and Parkview Church’s Ted Yeats. American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks will address the conference during a Thursday morning breakfast. (His role as keynote speaker might be a clue to the kind of agenda Republican leaders want to adopt, given that Brooks has joined with conservative reformers such as Senator Mike Lee (R. Utah) in arguing that the GOP must “make improving the lives of vulnerable people the primary focus of authentically conservative policies.”) House and Senate GOP leadership will host separate sessions on what their conferences should expect in the new Congress, before Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) and Boehner conduct a joint session. After a lunch with former British prime minister Tony Blair, the Republicans will discuss budgetary issues, health care policy. Later that afternoon, they’ll attend breakout sessions on “common ethics pitfalls,” as well as a “digital primer” and lessons on “effective speaking.” On Friday, they’ll once again meet for religious services before hearing from Aspen Institute president Walter Isaacson before having a House plenary session and a “leadership open microphone session.”
Immigration is certain to dominate such discussions this week. John Boehner eased conference tensions following an attempt to prevent him from continuing as House speaker by giving rank-and-file conservatives a leading role in drafting the main response to President Obama’s decision to confer the benefits of legal status on millions of illegal immigrants. The House plan to withhold money for Obama’s most recent executive orders and related policy directives, and to try to overcome a potential veto by attaching the defunding language to a bill providing appropriations for the Department of Homeland Security, has Senate Republicans feeling skittish.
Senate Republicans will “do their best” to pass the House version of the bill, one senior aide tells NRO, but the GOP needs to have a contingency plan in the event that they can’t get enough Democratic support to overcome a filibuster on the front end of the debate, or the 67 votes needed to override a veto of the bill if it does pass. Senator Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) has signaled a willingness to skip the legislative drama rather than face accusations of putting the Department of Homeland Security funding at risk.
“Defunding that part of the bill that deals with enforcing the executive order makes sense, but we can’t go too far here, because look what happened in Paris,” Graham said last week. “The Department of Homeland Security needs to be up and running.”
Some of the freshman lawmakers who campaigned on immigration when the border crisis made it a dominant issue during the 2014 midterms are more choleric.
“I think we’re going to give every opportunity to this administration to do the right thing,” Representative Ryan Zinke (R., Mont.) tells NRO, noting that he wants to see positive immigration-policy prescriptions in addition to a repudiation of Obama’s unilateral actions. “I believe that first you’ve got to defend the Constitution and then very quickly we’ll see some policy corrections.”
Congressional tea partiers want Republicans to draw the starkest contrast possible before Obama vetoes the DHS-funding bill. “The president is going to get what he wants; what we’re asking for is a debate and a fight to draw the battle lines,” a conservative Senate aide tells NRO. But there is victory in the veto, they believe, because it makes it easier to argue that Americans who oppose amnesty should vote Republican in 2016.
“What we don’t want is for them to start creating a rift within the Republican party in late January so that we’re all fighting each other through February,” the aide says, referring to Graham and some of the blue-state Republicans facing reelection.
After a lunch with Tony Blair, the conversation will likely shift toward Obamacare, at a session on the budget and reconciliation process hosted by House Budget Committee chairman Tom Price (R., Ga.) and Senate Budget Committee chair Mike Enzi (R., Wyo). Price wants to reform one entitlement that his predecessor, Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan, didn’t focus on in the aggressive “path to prosperity” budgets: Social Security.
“This is a program that right now on its current course will not be able to provide 75 or 80 percent of the benefits that individuals have paid into it in a relatively short period of time,” Price said during a Heritage Foundation event Monday. The Republican Doctors Caucus also wants to provide a permanent fix to Medicare’s payment system, which would drop the pretense that Congress is going to cut payments for doctors (the lawmakers pass an annual ‘doc fix’ to prevent those cuts from taking effect), providing a clearer picture of Medicare’s sorry finances. “This is the first step toward broader Medicare reform,” a House GOP aide explains.
Republicans might also discuss using the reconciliation process — a budgetary procedure that allows the Senate majority to sidestep a filibuster — to pass some tax reform policies favored by tea-party and establishment Republicans alike. That argument has two strikes against it, in the eyes of its critics.
First, they don’t believe it’s necessary, because the president has already signaled some support for corporate tax reform. “Why are you using the filibuster-buster for something that isn’t going to be filibustered?” a GOP Senate aide asks, referring to the reconciliation procedure. “You just can’t conceive of what the legislation would look like that would only get 59 votes in the Senate, but Obama would sign.”
Second, many Republicans want to use the reconciliation process to repeal Obamacare, as much to keep their promise to conservative voters as to woo new supporters who may dislike the law’s provisions as they continue to take effect. Obama will veto it, but “then he alone is responsible for all the problems that Obamacare is going to cause over the next two years,” the aide says. “That is a win that protects Senate seats and that is a win that helps us win the White House in 2016.”
The conversation will continue when Hatch, Paul Ryan, and other committee chairs participate in a health care policy panel on Thursday afternoon. That panel is also likely to discuss various Republican alternatives to Obamacare, as well as possible scenarios involving a lawsuit pending before the Supreme Court that could cripple the law.
While they aren’t mentioned by name in the draft schedule, the Paris terrorist attacks have inspired Republicans to make time for a discussion of foreign-policy priorities, Republican lawmakers tell NRO. That discussion will likely touch on authorizing the use of force against ISIS, and possible ways of moving money around within the federal budget to increase military spending, while keeping overall spending capped at current levels.
At some point, lawmakers hope to lay out a conservative policy agenda that can carry the party into the 2016 elections. That conversation was primed by the Heritage Action Conservative Policy Summit that took place during the first half of this week.
“We have a lot of good ideas emanating from the conference. I think we need to put those together and really push on some positive conservative reforms,” one Republican lawmaker tells NRO. “There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit that we could take on, but I have not heard that emanating from the leadership.”
The Hershey retreat aims to ease some of that frustration. If all goes well, and they can address the discord within their ranks, GOP lawmakers hope to emerge from the retreat united around a few core messages, while still leaving themselves the room needed to maneuver in negotiations with Obama and congressional Democrats.
— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter with National Review Online.