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GOP to Focus On Home Front

When GOP Senators go behind closed doors Friday to plot a unifying strategy for the 110th Congress, they likely will sidestep the one issue occupying most Members’ attention: the Iraq War.

Instead, Senate Republicans plan to focus on producing a domestic-heavy agenda, message and game plan for the next two years that positions them to reclaim the Senate majority in 2008. And even though their long-planned retreat lands right in the middle of a Senate debate over Iraq policy, GOP Senators and aides say they are optimistic they will find more togetherness than divisiveness.

“We’re fighting an unpopular war with a president [whose approval rating is] in the 30s — so yeah, it’s not ideal,” acknowledged a well-placed Senate GOP aide. “But our guys are going to have to come together. We have to look for ways we can come together.”

Senators will meet at the Library of Congress on Friday to brainstorm over legislative priorities and agree on the makings of a GOP agenda they hope will serve as a strong alternative to the Democrats. Republicans believe that one reason they lost so handily in 2006 is because they lost sight of their defining party principles and didn’t effectively lay out their vision to the electorate.

Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.) is coordinating the session, which is set to include broad discussions of party principles such as fiscal discipline, national security and personal responsibility. Members also are expected to begin setting their two-year legislative goals on issues such as energy, health care, tax policy, immigration reform and judicial nominations.

Kyl said Wednesday that while Iraq is at the forefront of Senators’ minds this week, he doesn’t expect it to trump Friday’s largely domestic-related retreat. He said Senators have “an agenda to talk about” and will operate under a set time frame for their discussions.

“We can have a healthy debate [on Iraq] and still be together as a Conference on the bulk of the issues,” Kyl said.

Kyl said one of the features of the Senate is that there always will be issues on which Members differ, but ultimately Senators respect one another’s positions and find ways to work together. Kyl said he didn’t know whether the retreat would provide a forum for Senators to come together on Iraq , but he said, “the more we talk with each other, the more likely we are to find common ground and mute our differences.”

The backdrop to the retreat, however, is the Senate’s ongoing debate over President Bush’s plan to increase troops in Iraq by 21,500. The proposal has brought some Senate support and scores of critics — including from within the Republican ranks, where several competing nonbinding resolutions criticizing the plan have emerged.

The president’s Iraq policy will take an even higher profile next week when Senators take to the floor to formally debate the proposal.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) predicted the topic of Iraq will come up at the Friday meeting, as it has “in all meetings.” But he agreed the issue should not become the main focus of the agenda-setting session.

“It’s an unusual issue because it is the elephant in the room,” Thune said. “On the other hand, we all know Friday is designed to come up with our legislative priorities.”

“The timing is what it is,” added a senior Republican Senate aide. “But we do have to have a game plan, a blueprint for how we are going to handle this next year.”

Republicans say they don’t want to waste any time putting together a policy agenda for the year, considering that they must defend 21 GOP-held Senate seats and capture two more to take the majority in 2008.

“Really, there’s no better time to chart a course for where we stand on policy,” said another senior GOP aide. “For the folks who are up in 2008, we need to show this party’s positions on policies that matter to people.”

The retreat will span the better part of the day, culminating with a trip by the GOP Senators to the White House for a meeting and reception with President Bush and first lady Laura Bush. White House Press Secretary Tony Snow will make an appearance during the day’s events and is expected to talk about GOP communications strategy.

Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), who is leading efforts to rally support among Republicans for Bush’s Iraq War plans, acknowledged his party isn’t in unison on the proposed surge policy. But he discounted suggestions that Republicans’ differences could ultimately hurt them politically.

“We are a diverse party,” Cornyn, the GOP Conference vice chairman, said. “People are very independent-minded. That’s the way it is.”

Cornyn joked, however, that if the president’s plan were to succeed, it would be interesting to see how the landscape would shake out, saying: “Success has 1,000 fathers, and failure is an orphan.”

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