Republican Retreat Heavy on Boasting, Short on Strategy

Divisions within ranks threaten progress on immigration, government spending

Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and South Dakota Sen. John Thune conduct a news conference at the media center during the House and Senate Republican retreat at the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., on Thursday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and South Dakota Sen. John Thune conduct a news conference at the media center during the House and Senate Republican retreat at the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., on Thursday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 2, 2018 at 5:05am

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Republicans leave the Greenbrier resort on Friday buoyed by their reflections of the accomplishments of the past year. But they also depart with little consensus on how to address the long to-do list awaiting them in Washington, D.C.

Much of the public portion of the GOP retreat was spent touting the recent tax overhaul, cuts to federal regulations, a record number of judicial appointments and an optimistic economic forecast. But the silence on contentious lingering issues such as health care, government spending and immigration was deafening.

What was meant to serve as a time for Republicans to hone their message and come away with a unified position on their 2018 agenda gave way to contradicting answers and vague statements of optimism.

“I’ll let you know at the end of the retreat what the agreement is,” House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers said Thursday when asked about the key takeaway from the retreat.

Watch: Trump Touts Party Unity, Year One Accomplishments in Speech to GOP Retreat

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President Donald Trump, during his speech here Thursday to the lawmakers at the retreat, said he was informed recently by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan that Republicans are more unified than ever.

That unity was not entirely on display, at least on issues like immigration and government spending.

GOP leaders appear as stuck on negotiations over a fiscal 2018 spending bill as they were before the government shutdown last month. They said the House and Senate were close on an agreement, a talking point lawmakers have spouted for weeks.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune voiced optimism Thursday that Congress would act swiftly to extend government funding beyond Feb. 8, when the current stopgap spending measure expires. Minutes later, House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows told reporters he did not believe his group of hard-line conservative lawmakers would support another continuing resolution, making a shutdown more a reality than a possibility at this point.

Lawmakers also had no straight answer for how they would seek to bridge the internal disagreements on legislation to address the pending expiration of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program. Members delivered mixed messages over proposals they could support or those that could eventually advance in either chamber.

“In all likelihood, no, we won’t have a single unified position on that. There’ll be wide varieties based on where your state is,” Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford said of a DACA compromise among Republicans. “We won’t have a single Republican position.”

Lankford said there were “a lot of dialogues that are happening in the hallways,” but added that he doesn’t expect a consensus “to come out of this three-day time period.”

There was almost no discussion on health care, an issue that still elicits intense public interest. It was not listed as one of the topics for breakout policy sections, according to a schedule of events. Republican senators have essentially ruled out the possibility of another attempt to repeal the 2010 health care law this year.

Watch: Why Does Congress ‘Retreat?’

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The memo takes over

Instead of discussing their agenda in depth, GOP lawmakers and leaders were pelted with questions about a public dispute among congressional Republicans, the White House and the FBI over a memo drafted by House Intelligence Committee Republicans.

Any hope in the GOP conference that they would receive further guidance from the White House was also dashed.

Trump spent nearly his entire address here Thursday recapping accomplishments from the past year. When he was not touting GOP achievements, he spoke in vague talking points on immigration that mirrored many of his past public remarks.

His one indirect ask? To use the White House DACA framework as the base bill, one that Republicans and Democrats have panned as unworkable. While the request was specifically included in prepared remarks distributed to press, it was never directly mentioned by Trump during his speech.

The president left without an Q&A session, a custom Trump also bucked during last year’s retreat.

Vice President Mike Pence spent the bulk of his remarks Wednesday calling on members to campaign on the tax overhaul in the hopes of bolstering GOP majorities in the House and Senate this November, something that would buck historical trends.

Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also called on members to continually tout the tax bill to constituents during a Wednesday briefing on the looming political landscape, members said.

When asked Thursday, Ryan and McConnell hedged on the few questions they received on the pressing issues Republicans will have to deal with in the coming weeks.

“I am perfectly happy, provided the government is still open … to go to the subject and to treat it in a fair way, not try to tilt the playing field in anybody’s direction and we’ll see who can get to 60 votes,” McConnell told reporters when asked about the DACA negotiations.

“We’re still negotiating on the contents and the duration of that,” Ryan said when asked about the fiscal 2018 spending bill. “Even if we had everything figured out by, say, Tuesday, we still have to have a CR if only for the fact that we have to to give the appropriators time to write an omnibus appropriations bill.”