WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — Members lined up 15 deep behind a microphone to address their peers at a closed-door GOP meeting here that has significant implications for the future of House Republicans and the nation.
“This is the most important retreat I’ve been to in my 28 years in Congress,” Rep. Joe L. Barton, R-Texas, told his colleagues, a sentiment other members said was reflected in the sober and urgent tone of the discussions.
Bruised from poor election results and bitter internecine warfare, House Republicans are using the retreat to try to regroup and unify and to come up with a plan for how to tackle the divisive fiscal issues that drove them into disarray at the end of 2012.
A series of fiscal deadlines await in the next few months, as Congress grapples with a debt ceiling increase, soon-to-expire funding to keep the government operating and automatic spending cuts known as the sequester. And Republicans are searching desperately for a plan that resonates with the public and forces Democrats to agree to more spending cuts.
So far, the options for dealing with those weighty matters include short-term solutions that might enhance the GOP’s leverage with the White House on annual spending bills but that fall far short of the major budget deal both parties say they would like to forge.
Tentative plans are emerging from the meetings to couple repeated short-term increases of the debt ceiling with more modest demands on spending cuts. One such increase might be offered if the Senate agreed to take a vote on a balanced-budget amendment, Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana said.
Though no final decisions have been made, members attending the three-day retreat at a golf resort here indicated that the GOP is inclined to take a hard line on the fiscal fights once it comes up with a strategy.
“The worst thing for the economy is to move past these events that are occurring with no progress made on the debt and deficit,” House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin told reporters.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who recently urged Republicans to cave in the fiscal cliff talks over extending the Bush-era tax rates, was also adamant that he would not vote for a “clean” debt ceiling increase, saying it could not pass the House.
The rationale for the short-term debt ceiling increases is that Republicans could make incremental progress and force Democrats to participate more willingly in discussions on reducing the deficit. It also would push the debt limit deadline closer to the deadlines for passing new discretionary spending bills and the scheduled start of $1.2 trillion in automatic, across-the-board spending cuts.
“We’re discussing the possible virtue of a short-term debt limit extension so that we have a better chance of getting the Senate and White House involved in discussions in March,” Ryan said. “What we want to achieve at the end of the day is a two-way discussion between Democrats and Republicans and, out of that, hopefully some progress being made about getting the deficit and debt under control.”
In the fiscal cliff talks, Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio was repeatedly undercut by his failure to control his own conference, culminating in a failed coup attempt by a small band of disgruntled conservatives.
But at the retreat, there were signs that the right was being brought into the fold, even if only temporarily. Members who voted against Boehner participated vigorously in the discussion about strategy on the debt ceiling, and some expressed their approval for how leadership was soliciting input on the issue.
And Ryan is also leading what Republicans are calling a “working group” of five influential conservative members: Reps. Tom Price of Georgia, Jeb Hensarling of Texas, Jim Jordan of Ohio and Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the new chairman of the Republican Study Committee.
The group worked ahead of the retreat to formulate ideas about how to approach the debt ceiling and other upcoming spending battles, some of which Ryan presented Thursday at their closed-door meeting.
Ryan’s group puts some of the most powerful members of the conference’s right flank together. Some in the group, Price in particular, have at times been viewed as a threat to Boehner.
Aides to the Ohio Republican said the speaker didn’t establish the group. But Cole said the fact that Ryan gave a presentation alongside Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia shows that leadership is on board with the effort.
“It wouldn’t have been a formal presentation and Ryan wouldn’t be leading the discussion if what’s happening didn’t have the support of leadership,” Cole said. “I think they want some of our best minds thinking through what our options are.”
On Thursday, Ryan and Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp of Michigan briefed members about the next 90 days. On Friday, the leaders will host an open microphone session during which rank-and-file members will have a chance to question them.
Ryan said part of the challenge is explaining to the freshmen who were just elected the logistics of what they will be dealing with in the first quarter of their first year in Congress.
But the theme of the retreat is broader than just the next 90 days. Republicans hope to come together after ending the 112th Congress with infighting. A dinner session on Wednesday was titled “Using Adversity to our Advantage by Working Together,” and another session scheduled for Thursday was called “Sailing Above Rough Seas.”