BY NIELS LESNIEWSKI AND LINDSEY MCPHERSON
When Democrats gathered in Philadelphia for their 2016 convention, they likely couldn’t conceive that Republicans would be meeting in the same city six months later with President Donald Trump and firm control of the House and Senate.
But the annual issues conference, a joint retreat for the House and Senate GOP that starts Wednesday, will take on new significance now that Republicans have control of both sides of Capitol Hill and the White House.
Republicans will seek to depart the City of Brotherly Love at week’s end with a roadmap for replacing the 2010 health care law, and perhaps, the start of a pathway on infrastructure spending and overhauling the tax code.
House members and senators will meet together for sessions on an assortment of policy areas, although health care is expected to be the main focus.
On Wednesday, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will lead a discussion on the GOP’s plan for Trump’s first 200 days, with a bicameral session on a tax code overhaul later that afternoon, according to a draft agenda obtained by Roll Call.
The House and Senate will also hold separate break-out sessions Wednesday afternoon, with the House sessions focused on Article 1 powers and the needs of working and middle-income people.
Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to be the keynote speaker during the dinner program Wednesday, according to the draft agenda.
On Thursday morning, the chambers will get together for sessions on national security and health care before a lunch when Trump is expected to speak. Pence is on the draft agenda to speak again Thursday after lunch, followed by an address from British Prime Minister Theresa May.
Senators will be dismissed after Thursday’s keynotes, although some are expected to stay for the dinner program, which will feature NFL great Peyton Manning and Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel.
House members will have late afternoon and early evening sessions Thursday with Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Majority Whip Steve Scalise and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers.
Stivers told Roll Call he plans to go over changes he’s shepherding at the NRCC, including the institution of a primary assistance program and candidate development assistance.
He also plans to announce a way for members to save up to $25,000 on their NRCC dues for the 2018 cycle. Members will get a dollar-per-dollar credit for giving money to colleagues in the NRCC’s Patriot, Young Gun or Primary Patriot programs and 50-cents-per-dollar credit for giving to any other member.
“Members get a lower rate on media and lots of things than the NRCC or independent expenditures, so it makes sense to incentivize people to support each other,” Stivers said. “It makes our team stronger. It makes our team closer.”
The retreat also includes some fun moments after hours. McCarthy will host a “celebration” Thursday night featuring ’90s cover band White Ford Bronco.
Friday’s schedule just includes a breakfast before some members head back to Washington for the March for Life and a leadership wrap-up session before the remaining members leave.
Health care overhaul
Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune said Tuesday that he anticipated the health care law talks could be the most robust.
“That’s going to be a very spirited discussion,” the South Dakota Republican said. “I’m hoping that coming out of there that we have a plan that we can proceed with that will enjoy the support of most Republicans in both the House and the Senate, and hopefully eventually, a number of Democrats as well.”
Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent, co-chairman of the moderate Tuesday Group, said he expects the health care and tax code overhauls to be the top agenda items of the retreat.
“A lot of us in the House would like to get a sense of where the administration is and the Senate [is] on health care,” Dent said. “I hope that many folks in the House get a better understanding of what the limitations of the Senate are — that whatever gets signed into law the next couple years is going to be whatever can get through the U.S. Senate. I hope we try to set realistic expectations about what is achievable and what is not.”
Asked if he expects they’ll walk away with more concrete deadlines for the repeal and replace effort, Dent said: “We’ll see. I don’t know. I think it’s more important that we develop a plan and a strategy before we insist on setting deadlines.”
Speaking with reporters Tuesday after the weekly Senate Republican lunch, Thune was realistic about the extent of the internal division on issues like the expansion of Medicaid and what to do about various health care law taxes and their associated revenue.
“Consensus is something we’re aiming for,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to reach a hundred-percent consensus, but I think that [we’re] trying to find as much common ground as we can — both with regard to substance and process.”
The process questions could be more vexing than the policy ones. House members may want to quickly advance a budget reconciliation bill repealing the health care law but it may not garner the support of 50 Republican senators.
“The House is going to be bringing us the repeal and replace and we need to really understand what’s in that, and get it as synced up as we can,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito said.
The West Virginia Republican is among a significant group of GOP senators from states that took advantage of the health care law’s Medicaid expansion program to get health benefits for more lower-income people.
“That’s going to be an important part of any kind of replacement that we have,” Capito said. “There’s a lot of us in states that have expanded Medicaid, and we want to make sure that those folks are taken care of.”
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said Republicans will need to be able to act after returning from Philadelphia.
“There will be many open questions that will be subject to discussion, but the bottom line is we have to get it done,” he said. “This election was a referendum on repealing Obamacare. It has been a disaster hurting millions, and we need to honor that process.”
House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said he thinks rank-and-file members will get more clarification on the timing to repeal and replace the health care law. “I’m hopeful that we’ll set a time frame on when we want to vote on that,” the North Carolina Republican said.
On the tax code overhaul, Meadows said he expects the fiscal 2018 budget process to be the vehicle, noting, “I think it will be done in reconciliation, if it will be done.”
Having previously served in the House, Capito stressed the importance of members understanding the way the rules work in each chamber to get a better view of what’s possible.
The senator pointed out that House members “can roll out CRAs every 20 minutes” which was “so much different than what it takes us, you know, five hours.”
The CRA, or Congressional Review Act, allows for an expedited process for getting to the president’s desk resolutions disapproving of regulations established in the final months of the Obama administration. But while it is expedited, it’s no panacea in the Senate since, as Capito pointed out, each resolution could burn up a day.
And the Senate must also spend floor time confirming Trump nominees to lead executive departments and agencies, particularly since Senate Democrats have been loath to allow quick action.
There’s also consensus that the Thursday visit by Trump will be key, particularly any conversation that takes place outside the view of TV cameras, when members may be more willing to talk about substantive and stylistic differences with the outsider-turned-leader of the party.
“There obviously are going to be differences of opinion, as there are up here among Republicans in both the House and the Senate. And when there are, we’ll work through them,” Thune said. “This is a president who has some of his own views on particular issues, but he has the same robust commitment to creating a faster-growing economy and better paying jobs.”
Asked what he wants to hear from Trump, Dent said, “Let’s just hope he stays focused on issues of governance. Let’s move on from the campaign.”