Pence Reshapes Retreat to Aid Rebuilding Plan

Posted January 23, 2009 at 5:50pm

Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) has made sweeping changes to the agenda that the House Republican Conference will follow at its annual retreat this week. Rather than running a typical “rally the troops” program, he’s hoping to use the gathering as a platform for the broader rebuilding effort under way within the GOP.

To that end, the list of those invited to join the House Republicans at the Homestead in Hot Springs, Va., on Thursday sounds like a 2012 presidential primary ballot.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels are among the speakers scheduled to attend, while three other governors — California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, Alaska’s Sarah Palin and Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal — sent their regrets, according to sources familiar with the guest list.

And even though over the past several years the president has been invited to and attended both the Democratic and Republican retreats, President Barack Obama was not on the invite list, according to a House aide.

That’s not the only change that Pence has made as planner in chief of the “Congress of Tomorrow” retreat, which is sponsored by the Congressional Institute, which organizes regular retreats and conferences for House and Senate Republicans.

How could anyone blame him after the 2008 retreat?

Last January, the House Republican retreat was dominated by infighting about earmark reform after leaders and members of the Republican Study Committee attempted to implement a unilateral moratorium.

Their efforts were beaten back by fierce opposition from appropriators and other lawmakers who needed the projects to help their re-election campaigns. In the end, Republicans issued a call for bipartisan earmark abandonment and for the establishment of a panel to review the way earmarks are included in spending bills.

Democrats, in response, said, “No thanks.”

Pence hopes the inclusion of GOP up-and-comers and the scheduled meetings for Members on the use of blogs and social networking sites like Facebook will get lawmakers excited for an event that has the potential to be a somber affair. Pollster David Winston (a Roll Call contributing writer) and communications experts Rich Thau and Auren Hoffman will lead Members through the various technology seminars.

“Chairman Pence wants to get the creative juices flowing,” spokesman Matt Lloyd said. “We invited the best and the brightest.”

The Pence-planned retreat deviates greatly from the traditional model, in which Members typically talk to each other and leadership seeks to rally the rank and file. Instead, the headline speakers will be separated by break-out sessions with experts on a range of issues from the war on terror to health care. In addition, there will be more House-centric sessions having to do with ethics and floor tactics.

But wait — there’s more.

With an eye toward helping set the tone for a new direction, Pence has asked the duo behind the 1994 Republican revolution, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and consultant Frank Luntz, to speak to the retreat.

“Gingrich was a House leader years ago and his name has been around, but his ideas are new every day,” Lloyd said.

Also among the familiar faces who will address the gathering is Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson, who will lead a discussion on social values.

Lloyd also noted that there will be “unprecedented media access,” meaning that unlike in years prior, when reporters were kept largely out sight — perhaps sequestered in a cabin with lime-green interior — the press will instead be permitted to sit in on some of the brainstorming sessions.