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House GOP members — well, some of them — head for the hills

More than half of majority conference skip gathering at The Greenbrier

House Speaker Mike Johnson speaks as House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik and National Republican Congressional Committee Chair Richard Hudson (L) listen during an “Expanding the Majority” press conference at The Greenbrier hotel.
House Speaker Mike Johnson speaks as House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik and National Republican Congressional Committee Chair Richard Hudson (L) listen during an “Expanding the Majority” press conference at The Greenbrier hotel. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — The first order of business at the House GOP’s annual retreat, which kicked off Wednesday, was a press conference on expanding the majority, though less than half of that majority planned to attend the retreat. 

The chaos that has plagued House Republicans in the 118th Congress spilled over into the annual event — meant to promote team-building and set priorities — which returned for the first time in several years to The Greenbrier in West Virginia, a historic luxury resort nestled in the Allegheny Mountains.

“We live in challenging times, we live in a time of divided government. Democracy is messy. Sometimes it’s very messy. This is part of that process,” Speaker Mike Johnson told reporters gathered  on The Greenbrier’s lawn, with members and their guests watching from one of the hotel balconies. Johnson, R-La., was joined by New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, chair of the House Republican Conference, and North Carolina Rep. Richard Hudson, chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

“But I think what you’ve seen is that, even though we live in a time of that divided government, and even though the Republicans have quite literally almost the smallest majority in U.S. history… we are actually moving the ball forward and getting the job done,” Johnson continued.

Despite Johnson’s optimism, it was a not-so-triumphant return. Fox Business’ Larry Kudlow, who was scheduled to deliver a keynote speech, dropped out at the last minute. Presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump won’t be coming. And a spokesperson for the Congressional Institute, which sponsors the Republican Issues Conference, said just over 100 members of the 218-member majority had RSVP’d they were going. Some cited scheduling conflicts. Others were more blunt.

“I’d rather sit down with Hannibal Lecter and eat my own liver,” one lawmaker told reporters for Axios and Politico earlier this week.

GOP hardliners like Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene are both reportedly sitting out the free gathering in the resort. And some in Republican leadership were also opting out. CNN reported House Homeland Security Chair Mark E. Green, Main Street Caucus co-chairs Dusty Johnson and Stephanie Bice, and Republican Governance Group Chair David Joyce would not attend. 

The meeting comes a day after the conference learned it would be shrinking further: Colorado Republican Rep. Ken Buck announced Tuesday he’s quitting next week, citing frustrations with the party.

Johnson, Hudson and Stefanik didn’t dwell long on their internal issues, however. Instead, they hit President Joe Biden and Democrats on crime, immigration and the economy.

“We’ve got one of the best political environments we’ve seen in decades. Because President Joe Biden and the Democrats have failed,” Hudson said. “And it’s because the American people have realized his policies are making them less prosperous and less safe.”

Johnson also referenced the “alarming” evidence uncovered by House Republicans leading the impeachment inquiry into Biden, an effort that has sputtered as of late and faces questions even within the GOP about whether it’s a fruitful endeavor.

No time for ‘deep dive’

Johnson, who won the speakership in October after Kevin McCarthy was ousted — McCarthy later resigned from Congress — called impeachment “probably the heaviest power that Congress holds.” But asked if there was enough evidence to impeach Biden, he said: “To be very frank with you… because I’ve been so busy with all my other responsibilities, I have not been able to take the time to do the deep dive in the evidence.”

Much of the Republican Issues Conference, as the retreat is formally known, will take a similarly antagonistic tone toward the president. In planned sessions on Thursday, lawmakers will offer updates on “Biden’s failed foreign policy,” “Battling Bidenomics,” and “Putting American Families First.” 

Lawmakers are scheduled to hear from Marc Andreessen, a venture capitalist and Republican donor; Jeanne Mancini, president of the antiabortion group March for LIfe; and Michael Herzog, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S.

This year’s is not the first House Republican retreat to the Greenbrier tinged with drama. A train carrying GOP lawmakers to the resort in 2018 collided with a truck, killing the driver. For the last several years under McCarthy, Republicans retreated to Florida. Some of those who skipped this year were reportedly unimpressed with the location compared to past retreats.

“It is not far from Washington — so a good place to bring the members to get them out of the hustle and bustle of Capitol Hill,” Johnson said of the Greenbrier. 

The resort is owned by West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, who is seeking the Republican nomination for the seat Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III has decided not to defend. Justice’s challenger in the GOP primary is Rep. Alex X. Mooney. It wasn’t clear as of Wednesday afternoon whether Mooney was in attendance.

In part because of its proximity to D.C. — it’s around four hours via car, six hours via train, or a very short plane ride —  the Greenbrier has significant political history.

Twenty-eight sitting presidents have stayed at the hotel and, in the 1960s, Congress ordered the construction of an emergency Cold War fallout shelter and relocation facility at the Greenbrier. 

Members of the media took tours of the bunker as they settled in Wednesday afternoon, waiting for the diminished crowd of lawmakers to arrive.

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