GOP Retreat Will Help Set Agenda

Posted January 27, 2004 at 6:17pm

House Republicans will depart for the bicameral GOP retreat in Philadelphia Thursday morning with the task of formulating an agenda in an environment dominated by talk of budget deficits and the coming presidential campaign.

Republican Members and aides described a game plan for 2004 that will emphasize mounting an effective defense of their accomplishments on the deficit, health care and education while playing offense on national security, terrorism and a handful of economic issues.

But the first and most difficult order of business will be the budget, which will set out the party’s priorities for the year. Newly released projections from the Congressional Budget Office reinforce the importance of reducing the deficit, but GOP Members are also eager to boost spending for defense and homeland security while making recently passed tax cuts permanent.

“The message is that we need to get our game plan on the budget put together,” said John Feehery, spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). “These retreats are always very good for setting up the whole year.”

On the House side, the retreat agenda includes several sessions on budget issues as well as ones specifically devoted to Medicare, campaign finance and the election outlook.

Those sessions will include discussions centered not just on new legislative proposals but also on how to sell past accomplishments.

“I think we’re going to take a little bit of time and appreciate what we did last year,” said House Republican Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio), explaining that she and her colleagues did a lot of “heavy lifting” but got out of town too quickly to savor their achievements.

At the same time, Republican leaders are anxious to avoid the impression that they are keeping the legislative calendar light because it is an election year.

“We don’t want to just talk about the past,” Feehery said. “In this case the past is instructive [but] the Speaker believes we need to keep on offense.”

For Republicans, playing “offense” could include pushing for class action and medical liability reform. They also face the challenge of designing a massive new transportation bill.

Republican leaders regularly prod lawmakers to spend more time lauding GOP accomplishments, but the fact that the campaign season has already begun gives their pleas a fresh urgency, particularly since health care and education are traditionally seen as Democratic territory.

Pryce and Education and the Workforce Chairman John Boehner (Ohio) distributed a memo this week encouraging their fellow House Republicans to spend more time discussing education issues and touting the No Child Left Behind Act.

The memo highlights the results of a new Winston Group poll which showed that Americans gave NCLB a rating of 54 percent positive and 23 percent negative, with a name identification of 87 percent. The survey queried 1,000 adults Jan. 5-6, with a 3 percent margin of error.

Although Pryce and Boehner touted the survey’s positive results, they also took their colleagues to task for their failure thus far to fully capitalize on the issue.

“The bad news is that Republicans aren’t talking enough about No Child Left Behind, or our plans to build on it,” they wrote.

“The Winston Group’s most recent polling shows Democrats with an 11-point lead over Republicans on handling of the education issue. … Put simply, when Republicans talk about our education achievements and agenda, the education issue becomes a ‘jump ball’ between Democrats and Republicans. When we don’t talk about these things, the issue defaults to the Democrats.”

Pryce and Boehner included in the memo five “education-event templates” that lawmakers could use as models for gatherings in their districts. They also wrote that Republican leaders would be “engaged in the process,” which could give GOP efforts greater media visibility.

Pryce said Tuesday that a similar communications effort would be necessary if Republicans want to reap the potential benefits from their passage of Medicare reform last year.

“We’re not going to do anything new on Medicare, but it is such a complex initiative some of the American people are having trouble understanding and some of our Members are having trouble articulating it,” Pryce said. “If we aren’t getting credit, some of the problem is we haven’t been talking enough about it.”