Senate and House Republicans were scheduled to depart for Hershey, Pennsylvania around 11:30 this morning for their first joint "sweet retreat" in ten years. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and comedian Jay Leno are expected to address the lawmakers at the event, which will include two days of policy sessions–all of which are closed to the media and the public. Capitol Police will provide security, which is expected to be high–and Pennsylvania State Police were expected to escort the bus convoy once they crossed the state border (via Penn Live):
Lawmakers are also expected to discuss health care, immigration reform and the budget. They are also expected to discuss the reconciliation process, a controversial and generally partisan process that both Democrats and Republicans have used in the past to pass legislation by a simple Senate majority of 51 votes. Democrats used reconciliation to enact a portion of Obamacare in 2010, and Republicans used it to enact Bush-era tax cuts.
Republicans, for the first time since 2006, control both the House and the Senate, but need several votes from Democrats if they are to override a presidential veto. President Obama has already vowed to veto several GOP-favored bills, including the Keystone XL pipeline project and any dismantling of the Affordable Care Act.
Yet, while policy will be discussed, legislative realism will also be addressed; that being which laws are possible to get through both chambers. Senate Republicans have to deal with 60-vote thresholds on filibusters, unlike their colleagues in the House (via Roll Call):
In a one-on-one conversation aboard one of the Senate's underground trains, Republican Conference Chairman John Thune said one focus of the retreat will be on what's possible given that Senate Republicans are well short of the 60 votes needed to break Democratic filibusters. That is a problem the House leadership does not have.
"I think that you have to look at in terms of what can we get done, what's realistic, and be very practical about that," the South Dakota Republican said. "And then know that there are some other issues that are just going to be drawing the bright lines and creating the contrast for the next elections."
"I think in the meantime, we want to try and find the areas where there is some common ground where we can actually get some accomplishments," Thune said.
Thune drew a contrast with the more freewheeling House, where debate can be restricted by the Rules Committee to quickly process a wide array of legislation, including the 12 regular spending bills that McConnell has said he wants to bring to the floor.
"It gets pretty hard, in the Senate at least," Thune said. "You don't have the luxury of ... this unlimited amount of time."
Both chambers now are moving on trade initiatives, which Thune said will be a “big thing” at the retreat. The issue is also of interest to another force the conferences will have to consider in their strategy — the president.
There's no shortage of must-do items on the congressional agenda for 2015, ranging from government funding and raising the debt limit to important authorization bills, like a highway bill and a reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration.
Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) told Politico about the upcoming retreat, “There’s not a great understanding in the House about how the Senate moves day to day.”
The retreat will allow House and Senate Republicans to discuss, or clarify, issues where both chambers don’t seem to see eye-to-eye. Immigration and the notion of instituting a gas tax to pay for infrastructure are some examples (via Politico):
Immigration is incredibly tricky for the party and neatly contrasts the chambers’ competing priorities.
The House’s Homeland Security Department funding bill will very likely include language to roll back Obama’s attempts to defer deportation for millions of undocumented immigrants, many of whom are young people.
Moderate Senate Republicans — those lawmakers who will be key to keeping control of the chamber in 2016 — are hesitating at the proposal, which is raising the ire of some House conservatives.
“There’s a number of them — like John McCain, people like that — who are pro-comprehensive immigration reform, amnesty, everything that goes with it,” Louisiana Rep. John Fleming said. “And you really don’t see that high-profile person among House Republicans. So that’s our anxiety in sending this bill we’re going to be sending — the DHS funding bill — many of our Republican colleagues may actually side with Democrats. So it’s yet to be seen. The American people side with us, though.”
Senate Republicans, meanwhile, wish the House kept their politics in mind. The bill has no chance of clearing the Senate.
“Things like that?” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), referring to the DHS funding bill. “It would be helpful to have more coordination.”
In all, it seems the hope for this retreat is that members leave with some clarification of what's legislatively possible–and to show that a unified Republican Congress can govern responsibly.