With hopes high for the new era of GOP majority control, House and Senate Republicans are headed off the Hill to plot a course for the party’s stymied legislative agenda.
The GOP conferences from both ends of the Capitol will gather for the next few days in Hershey, Pa., in their first joint retreat in 10 years — to hear from pundits and experts on pressing issues, get to know new faces, and start drafting proposals that could eventually reach President Barack Obama’s desk.
Parties from the two sides of the Capitol usually meet separately, and former aides say that’s out of a healthy respect for the differences between the two bodies. But now that the House and Senate are in Republican hands, party leaders want to go beyond messaging to set a strategy to get legislation through Congress, to the president's desk and into law.
“It’s a good way to get away from distractions and spend a day or two planning our agenda and our themes and think it’s better to do that in a bicameral fashion,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss., who has pushed for the joint retreat since he arrived in the chamber six years ago.
That means Senate Republicans are planning to let loose a backlog of proposals advanced by the House GOP that a Democratic Senate wouldn’t touch. “Instead of just setting them in a drawer like [former Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid did, we have the opportunity to take them up,” said Don Stewart, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s deputy chief of staff for communication.
In past years, the House GOP conference spent its retreats honing policy positions on immigration, health care and the budget. Those efforts amounted largely to simple opposition to Senate Democrats and the White House, and leaders sometimes struggled to get members to coalesce around one idea.
The challenge now is to see what they can pass, which may mean getting past the sort of procedural hurdles in the Senate that Republicans used to slow or sidetrack Democratic initiatives.
Senate Democrats say they will prove to be a less obstructionist minority than Republicans but don’t expect to “roll over” either, as evidenced by their ability to slow walk the contentious Keystone XL pipeline on the floor. McConnell also has made clear he is patient and will not let the president set the Senate’s agenda with early veto threats.
In his opening speech to the new Congress, the Kentucky Republican vowed to change the Senate’s “business model,” from a place where House-passed legislation died without a hearing to a place where bills can receive an open amendment debate on the floor.
In a one-on-one conversation aboard one of the Senate's underground trains, Republican Conference Chairman John Thune said one focus of the retreat will be on what's possible given that Senate Republicans are well short of the 60 votes needed to break Democratic filibusters. That is a problem the House leadership does not have.
"I think that you have to look at in terms of what can we get done, what's realistic, and be very practical about that," the South Dakota Republican said. "And then know that there are some other issues that are just going to be drawing the bright lines and creating the contrast for the next elections."
"I think in the meantime, we want to try and find the areas where there is some common ground where we can actually get some accomplishments," Thune said.
Thune drew a contrast with the more freewheeling House, where debate can be restricted by the Rules Committee to quickly process a wide array of legislation, including the 12 regular spending bills that McConnell has said he wants to bring to the floor.
"It gets pretty hard, in the Senate at least," Thune said. "You don't have the luxury of ... this unlimited amount of time."
Both chambers now are moving on trade initiatives, which Thune said will be a “big thing” at the retreat. The issue is also of interest to another force the conferences will have to consider in their strategy — the president.
Thune said the Senate Finance Committee is expected to move fairly quickly on trade legislation, and he hopes the president will encourage enough Democratic support to overcome any filibuster threats.
"Trade is an issue where the president is, at least rhetorically, is on the same side that we are,” he said. “But the question is, when push comes to shove, can he deliver some Democrats up here.”
There's no shortage of must-do items on the congressional agenda for 2015, ranging from government funding and raising the debt limit to important authorization bills, like a highway bill and a reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration.
"We'll have to be addressing those issues fairly soon as well, so there's a lot of stuff out there where you've got, you know, hard deadlines that are going to require pretty immediate action," Thune said.