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Heritage Retreat Lacks Boldface Names

Some of the House’s most prominent conservatives will huddle in Baltimore this week for The Heritage Foundation retreat, but two of the most notable names in the conservative movement are skipping the occasion.

Heritage President and CEO Jim DeMint, who recently resigned from the Senate to take the job, and House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the GOP’s recent vice presidential nominee, will not attend the three-day confab.

Retreat organizers wanted to host an address by DeMint, the former South Carolina senator, but decided not to out of an abundance of caution. Criminal law forbids former senators from influencing members for two years after leaving Congress.

“We’re handling him with kid gloves because we don’t want to put him in any situations where it’s technically legal, but it looks bad,” said Michael Franc, vice president for government studies at Heritage. “He has the ethical limits in terms of dealing with members that might be deemed as traversing the boundaries of ethics laws.”

Ryan’s office did not respond to a request for comment when asked why the lawmaker will not attend.

But Franc chalked it up to Ryan perhaps being “retreated out” after last month’s Republican Conference retreat, which was held in Williamsburg, Va.

“No one feels at all begrudged,” Franc said. “He’s given serious speeches at Heritage a number of times. … He’s very receptive to our invitations historically.”

The three-day retreat, which starts on Wednesday night, will lack the star power that appearances by DeMint or Ryan would have brought. Moreover, the schedule lacks big-name conservative speakers altogether.

Organizers reached out to several governors aligned with the conservative movement, but they all declined the invitation, according to a GOP congressional aide. Govs. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Mary Fallin of Oklahoma, both former members of the Republican Study Committee when they were House members, had scheduling conflicts. Former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels could not make it either.

Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California and Deputy Whip Peter Roskam of Illinois will not attend the retreat.

But some members of leadership will attend, though they are not playing key roles in the meeting. Republican Policy Committee Chairman James Lankford of Oklahoma and sophomore class representative Steve Southerland II of Florida will attend. A spokesman for Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington said she is considering attending, but her schedule is still being determined.

Although many leaders will not be in Baltimore, the group will be talking about how it can unify after a combative two years, culminating in an unsuccessful coup attempt against Boehner.

“I think they are willing to give leadership a chance with this one, and you saw it a week or two ago with the debt ceiling vote,” which passed easily, said a senior GOP aide to an RSC member. “We’re willing to give them a chance, but don’t blow it.”

The retreat also represents a policy-focused planning session and an opportunity for RSC Chairman Steve Scalise of Louisiana to mend relationships after the contentious race to become the group’s leader in the 113th Congress, during which he upset the RSC founders’ choice, Rep. Tom Graves of Georgia.

“After the election there’s some hard feelings,” a second senior Republican congressional aide said. “He really just wants to build fellowship among members and unify the RSC.”

Some of the more recognizable names that will address members include entrepreneur and publisher Steve Forbes, former Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, CNBC television host Larry Kudlow and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey.

“They’re all substantive people,” Franc said. “We want to give [members] the intellectual food to sustain them for the next year. … We haven’t really gone after some of the matinee big names in a sense.”

The focus will be on the pending issues Congress has to deal with, and the aide said Scalise wants the RSC to coalesce behind a plan that would allow the more than $1 trillion in sequestration cuts to go into effect unless they can be replaced with cuts elsewhere.

A session dealing with the health care overhaul will focus less on repealing the law, a goal the aide said is unrealistic at this point, but on defunding it through the appropriations process.

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