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Bicameral Unity a Goal For Republican Retreat

Congressional Republicans travel to West Virginia on Thursday for a series of meetings with President Bush and several of his senior advisers in an effort to help establish a cohesive legislative strategy for the 109th Congress.

How to marshal Bush’s Social Security reform proposal through the sharply divided Congress and sell the plan to the American people will be one of the main topics of discussion during the bicameral retreat held over the next four days at the Greenbrier Resort, organizers said.

“We are going to talk about communications as well as policy,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) as he offered a snapshot of the discussions that are going to take place on the Social Security issue. “That will take up more time than anything else.”

Bush is scheduled to address Senators and Representatives on Friday afternoon, and is expected to urge his fellow Republicans to help promote his Social Security proposal as well as his other domestic priorities.

“We anticipate he is going to lay the marker down,” said a GOP leadership aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Following the president’s speech, Republicans will spend the remainder of the day strategizing on how best to approach the Social Security issue.

White House political strategist Karl Rove will speak to Senate Republicans on Thursday and Office of Management and Budget Director Josh Bolten is scheduled to headline a discussion Friday morning on the budget and taxes.

“I suspect he is going to give us a rundown of where we have come from and where we are going,” Santorum said about Rove’s speech to the Senators. “Sort of a wrap of where we think the electorate is and what the expectations are.”

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani will be the guest of honor at a bicameral dinner Friday night. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) will attend the World Economic Forum in Switzerland on Thursday and Friday, forcing him to miss the first two days of the retreat. He will return to the United States and join his GOP colleagues for the final two days of meetings.

House Republican Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio) will use the retreat as an opportunity to unveil a new communications strategy centered on what the Conference will call “public affairs campaigns.”

Those campaigns will be modeled on the effort the Conference put together on Medicare during the 108th Congress. Each of the six or seven groups will enlist 12 to 20 House Republican lawmakers to focus on a particular issue such as retirement security, health care access and economic competitiveness.

“The idea is to employ more of a PR-firm style approach to communications whereby we have a very specific and methodical way of using techniques like branding and benchmarking,” said Conference spokeswoman Anne Buresh.

As was the case with Medicare, each Member assigned to a public affairs campaign will be asked to take a series of specific outreach steps in their districts, such as holding workshops, meeting with newspaper editorial boards and sending out franked mail.

The Conference will also expand its use of “pulse polling,” a plan that involves testing the same sets of specific questions every month in order to gauge support.

Beyond the Conference’s presentation, the retreat agenda will include plenty of number crunching. In addition to sessions with pollsters David Winston (who is a Roll Call contributing writer) and Frank Luntz, the National Republican Congressional Committee will unveil a new survey on Social Security conducted by the Tarrance Group.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Winston will hold a session Saturday afternoon to discuss the growing influence of Web logs. Representatives are scheduled to break camp on Saturday, while the program for Senators continues through Sunday.

Santorum said one of his main goals for the retreat is to help establish a better working relationship with House Republicans as they prepare for the battles of the 109th Congress.

“What we hope to get out of this is good coordination between the House and Senate — as well as working through some of the issues that are very, very important,” he said.

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