House and Senate Republicans head to West Virginia on Wednesday for the annual GOP retreat, leaving Washington even as high-profile negotiations on immigration and government funding remain unresolved.
While those topics are expected to come up during the gathering at the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, they could take a back seat to other agenda items such as infrastructure, defense and workforce development.
Another topic looming over the retreat will be a 2018 midterm election cycle that could spell trouble for the Republican majorities in each chamber. With less than one guaranteed year left of full control of Congress and the White House, House and Senate members will be discussing how to maximize their time. That conversation could expose the divide between the two chambers over what legislation should take priority this year.
“These retreats are helpful in helping members in both the House and Senate understand what the limitations are in the other body. The House guys probably need to hear from Senate leaders just how challenging it is going to be to get to 60 votes for some of the things they want to do,” Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune of South Dakota said.
Watch: Immigration, Budget Talks on Hill Could Be Just That — A Lot of Talk
Many House Republicans say they’re ready to push for major changes to welfare programs and to revisit dismantling the 2010 health care law. Senate Republicans, who narrowly control the chamber with 51 members, don’t see many paths for such measures, even if they were to use the budget reconciliation process that allows passage with only majority support.
“We can’t accept the Senate’s answer that they don’t have the votes to do anything, because people back home are hurting,” Rep. Richard Hudson said.
The North Carolina Republican said the joint retreats haven’t been sparring matches and there’s no reason this year’s needs to be feisty, “but we ought to have a good healthy discussion.”
Rep. Rob Woodall said he’s optimistic there will be less “fussing” and more developing a shared agenda. As with the tax overhaul, the House and Senate don’t need to have the exact same vision. They just need to be willing to work together, the Georgia Republican said.
“I’m sure we have different understandings of what our body can do, where the center is [for] both of our groups, but this will be the first time as institutions we’ve sat down together in 2018, and it’s going to matter,” Woodall said.
Speaker Paul D. Ryan wanted to pursue overhauling entitlement programs in 2018, but the Senate and White House weren’t fully on board.
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Ryan sees such efforts as a way to lift people out of poverty and as a natural extension of the GOP’s new tax law.
The retreat session on the topic will be focused on “workforce development,” such as creating work requirements for entitlement programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, said House Agriculture Chairman K. Michael Conaway of Texas, who is leading the discussion.
The midterm elections aren’t just a backdrop. GOP political prospects are part of the retreat agenda.
National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers of Ohio and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Cory Gardner of Colorado will talk about messaging on GOP successes like taxes, the economy, safety and security, “and a lot about the landscape,” Stivers said.
“There’s no shortage of opportunities for us either, and we’ll be talking about that,” he said.
Among those dropping by the Greenbrier will be President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis.
“I’m not going. Retreats are a waste of time,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa said.
Republicans must also consider deadlines facing them when they return to the Capitol next week.
Government funding expires after Feb. 8, and congressional leaders appear no closer to a deal on the spending caps for fiscal 2018 than they did before the recent shutdown. House conservatives are signaling they will not support another continuing resolution, frustrated that strategies to break off funding for defense from domestic priorities have not worked.
Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows expects some of his members to to meet with defense hawks while in West Virginia and “talk about a strategy going forward to make sure we don’t hold our military men and women hostage.”
But time is short.
“We’re just waiting on [Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer] to come up with a number so we can get to work on the appropriations bills,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas said when asked about timing.
Other items — disaster aid, health care bills — might be added to an omnibus spending bill and could be discussed during the retreat, GOP senators said.
What’s more, lawmakers have only a few weeks to address the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects nearly 700,000 young people from deportation. Trump last year terminated DACA, which former President Barack Obama put into place via executive order, on a six-month delay. It is poised to end on March 5.
Lawmakers like Rep. Carlos Curbelo said they expect immigration to be discussed at the retreat. The Florida Republican sees it as an opportunity for Trump to push both chambers “to do the right thing.”
Not all of Curbelo’s colleagues are ready, though.
“We will not have a discussion, I’m told, between the Senate and the House on immigration per se, because we’re trying to have our own discussion among ourselves in the House,” Alabama GOP Rep. Bradley Byrne said.