GOP Leaders Shape ’08 Plans

Posted January 18, 2008 at 6:27pm

Republicans on each side of the Capitol will meet separately this week for their annual retreats, with House and Senate leaders expected to focus discussions on what they can do to help cure two of the biggest problems that plague Washington: spending and partisanship.

Senate Republicans will convene Wednesday at the Library of Congress for a one-day retreat where the economy and bipartisanship are expected to take center stage.

Meanwhile, House GOP leaders will make earmark reform a major topic of discussion at their retreat in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., later this week.

“There will be a conference-wide discussion about the earmark process both on the appropriations side and the authorization and tax side,” Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said last week at a press conference. “And I’m hopeful that we as a conference will be able to come to a position about what we would do about fixing the earmark process.”

Republicans are likely to discuss a variety of options for changing the process and reining in wasteful spending. Possible ideas range from banning earmarks outright to issuing a moratorium on the practice while it is studied to trying to develop a process that would help weed out earmarks that are superfluous.

The debate over which direction the party goes is a touchy subject since Members rely on bringing funds back to their districts for projects, and their constituents have come to expect it.

But Boehner is expected to make the case that substantive earmark reform, and the development of a corresponding policy, has to be a centerpiece of the GOP’s effort to regain its fiscal conservative posture.

The earmark discussion is part of a larger effort — spearheaded by Boehner — to rebrand a party that in many ways is still reeling from its loss of power following the 2006 elections.

On the House side, Republicans appear to be honing a message that Washington is broken and they need to show voters that they are the party that can fix it.

“Reforming earmarks is at the top of the list of fixing a broken Washington,” said one GOP aide, telegraphing what is likely to be a major theme coming out of the retreat.

Also on the agenda at the House Republican retreat, which is Jan. 24-26 at The Greenbrier in West Virginia, will be presentations by members of leadership as well as Republican pollsters.

National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) will give a presentation on the party’s political efforts. GOP pollsters Rich Thau, David Winston (also a Roll Call contributing writer) and Linda Divall also will present their latest findings.

Friday night, Members will hear from Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R). The keynote speaker Thursday night will be Vinton Cerf, a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient who is known as the father of the Internet. Cerf is expected to give a forward-looking, nonpolitical speech.

GOP Senators, meanwhile, will huddle Wednesday for their annual retreat at the Library of Congress. They are expected to use the one-day session to vet policy proposals and discuss areas where they believe they can compromise with majority Democrats in the coming year.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), the new Republican Conference chairman who is organizing the retreat, said Friday he anticipates the Senator-only meeting will help set a new tone for the second half of the 110th. He argued that his colleagues share the view that Washington is too mired in partisan bickering and that it’s not too late for the two parties to resolve their differences.

“We are here to try to do good things for our country and we’re ready to go to work across the aisle to get principled solutions to the big issues facing our country,” Alexander said.

Headlining the Senate GOP retreat will be Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who will spend the lunch hour with Senators discussing the state of the nation’s struggling economy and fielding ideas for how best to reinvigorate it. Lawmakers in both parties have been working in recent days to craft a short-term economic stimulus package to try to stave off a looming recession.

Alexander said more than half of the 49 Republican Senators are expected to take a turn at the podium to offer their thoughts on various policy ideas. On the list of likely topics are jobs, health insurance and national security matters, he said.

Asked whether he believed Republicans would leave the retreat ready to change the caustic atmosphere of the Senate, Alexander said: “We’ll see. I’m looking forward to hearing what [Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell [R-Ky.] has to say. I hope there’s a tonal shift in the entire Senate.

“I think we’ve conclusively proved that getting nothing done doesn’t help the country, it doesn’t help the Democrats and it doesn’t help the Republicans.”

Senate Democrats will wait a few weeks for their annual meeting, with plans to convene on Feb. 1 at Mount Vernon, Va.

The Republican retreat will be the first opportunity for the GOP Senators’ new leadership to convene since the resignation late last year of Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

Public opinion polls continue to show Congress is in poor stead with the electorate, numbers that do little to benefit either party. And like Republicans, Democrats are clearly taking note, having already reached out to Republicans and the White House to craft a plan to boost the economy.

Alexander said he believes his Republican colleagues share the view that the party must do more to widen its appeal to independent-minded voters and don’t want to squander 2008 by fighting with the Democrats.

“Some say that this is a presidential year and so Congress will get nothing done,” Alexander said. “The sentiment among Republicans is there’s no excuse for taking the year off when so many serious issues are facing the country.”