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Three takeaways from House GOP retreat as McCarthy, caucus eye return to majority

GOP plans some quick hits and continues to formulate policies for possible return to majority

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., conducts a Jan. 20 news conference with members of the House Republican Conference on President Biden's first year in office.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., conducts a Jan. 20 news conference with members of the House Republican Conference on President Biden's first year in office. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — House Republicans are leaving their annual retreat Friday with policy proposals largely still in the works and an overarching sentiment of fighting against what Democrats and the Biden administration have done while in power.

As GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., forges ahead on his mission to lead his conference into the majority this fall and become Speaker, his team is focused on making a case to the American people that under Democratic control, the cost of living has become too high and paychecks are not going as far as they used to.

Rising gas prices and inflation have been central to the GOP case for change, but even if McCarthy leads his caucus to a big win in November, they would still have to govern under a Biden presidency and that requires compromise.

Here are three takeaways from the mostly rainy Florida retreat at the Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa.

Proxy moxy

One area that wouldn’t require buy-in from the Biden administration is the House Rules package for the 118th Congress. 

Republicans plan to get rid of the rule that allows members to vote remotely, known as proxy voting. It was instituted by Democrats at the height of the coronavirus pandemic and has continued to date. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have used proxy voting.

“Well, our very first day is rules,” McCarthy said Thursday in a conversation with Punchbowl News. “We’re no longer going to do proxy voting. People are going to be here.”

Following the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, magnetometers were installed outside the entrance to the House chamber, another measure McCarthy vowed to eliminate. 

“We’ll take away, of course, the magnetometers,” he said. 

Another campus issue that has drawn the ire of Republicans is that the Capitol complex has been largely closed to the public since the pandemic began. Though limited tours begin Monday as part of a phased reopening plan, GOP members want a return to normal operations. 

“We’re going to open the House back up for the people and for the press,” McCarthy said.

Grappling with policy

Republicans are still grappling with what specific policies they want to focus on, but have some proposals teed up, including trying to secure the southern border, an issue Republicans have harped on during Biden’s presidency. 

McCarthy assigned members to seven task forces: jobs and the economy; big tech censorship and data; future of American freedoms; energy, climate and conservation; American security; healthy future; and competition with China. 

New York Rep. John Katko, who leads the American security team, said they are developing an agenda to secure the border, strengthen cyber defenses and support law enforcement. He told reporters on Thursday that they are working to gather feedback from the retreat and come up with a “a tangible work product.”

Though he is not running for reelection, Katko said he wants to give his colleagues a “real good blueprint”  by August so they can run on it.

“So when my colleagues go home for their August and September recess, where they’re campaigning hardcore on the trail, they have the issues and the playbook to give the American voters an opportunity to decide who they want to run the show next term,” Katko said.

A regular staple of McCarthy’s press conferences is a mention of fentanyl coming through the border and Americans dying from it. 

“You’re going to get security at the border going after fentanyl,” McCarthy said. (Only the president can direct federal resources for such a mission. Congress could send him legislation requiring the federal government to do more, but Biden would need to agree with enough of such a bill and sign it into law.)

Katko, who is the top Republican on the Homeland Security Committee,  said the U.S. “seized enough fentanyl this year to kill every man, woman and child in the United States eight times over.”

One bill Katko said Republicans would want to act on is a measure he introduced in July 2021 that would require the Department of Homeland Security secretary to resume construction on the border wall system and deploy technology to support Customs and Border Protection and Border Patrol operations.

McCarthy also listed action on energy independence to lower costs and a parents bill of rights as priorities.

McCarthy’s overall plan is called the Commitment to America, which he announced in 2020. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., who has experience winning a Republican majority, talked to members at the conference. Before the 1994 elections, Gingrich and Republicans laid out their “Contract with America,” spelling out what policy proposals they intended to accomplish at the start of the 104th Congress.

McCarthy previewed a heavy oversight role for Republicans, and listed his interest in looking into the origins of COVID-19 and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, among others.

‘A scorpion’

President Joe Biden has repeatedly said he doesn’t want American troops fighting against Russians in Ukraine, something with which Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, agrees. 

“I don’t think anybody wants American soldiers in Ukraine. The no-fly zone would put us in immediate war with Russia because NATO planes will obviously be in conflict with the Russian aircrafts,” McCaul said Thursday.

McCaul criticized Biden for not keeping all options on the table, a point he said was made to the conference retreat by Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of State under President George W. Bush, who spoke with members on Zoom. 

An interesting dynamic will be where Republicans stand on a red line and whether that aligns with the White House. McCaul didn’t say exactly what his red line was for escalation by the U.S., but mentioned certain weapons in that context and said options are being discussed at high levels.

“I keep saying he’s [Putin] like a scorpion. If he’s backed in a corner, he’s gonna come out stinging and the best he’s got chemical, but these short-range tactical nukes are the ones that I don’t see how the world can sit back and watch the bully pick on the little kid on the playground or like David and Goliath and do nothing in response to that,” McCaul said.

McCaul said he and Ohio Rep. Michael R. Turner, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, are in the process of considering what the response should be. 

“The question is what is the response? And that’s something we are talking about at very high levels in the administration, both Mike (Turner) and myself about what would be the appropriate red line consequence,” McCaul said. “But it can’t be like Obama setting a red line in Syria, and chemical weapons were laid down and then there’s no consequence.”

Turner said there needs to be clarity on what Russian action Biden would consider a red line.

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