House Republican Retreat Focuses On Strategies For Rebuilding

House Republicans have left Washington, D.C., and reconvened three hours south, just outside Williamsburg, Va., for a closed-door retreat. They've heard from pollsters about why the public doesn't like them. Now they'll hear from consultants about how to woo women and minorities. David Welna talks to Audie Cornish.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

That three-day retreat of Republican House members is under way right now at a resort on the outskirts of Williamsburg, Virginia.

NPR congressional correspondent David Welna is there too. He's spoken with a number of GOP leaders and other members this afternoon. Hey there, David.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: So, to start, what is the mood there? I mean, we're just a few days ahead of President Obama's inauguration.

WELNA: Yes, that's right. I'd say the mood is edgy. I think House Republican leadership is being very cautious about showing any signs of disunity here. And one of the best ways of doing that is keeping us reporters here at more than arm's length. We're actually corralled here in a separate building from where they're meeting.

That said, it's clear these are turbulent times for House Republicans. We saw speaker John Boehner humiliated last month when he couldn't get enough Republicans to back his proposal for extending the Bush tax cuts for income under a million dollars. And then Boehner had to rely on the votes of most House Democrats to get most of those tax cuts extended. And this week, he once again needed the votes of Democrats to get a relief package approved for victims of Superstorm Sandy.

Boehner did get re-elected as speaker, but there was a small insurrection of House Republicans in the process of that. But, you know, the kind of cockiness that you saw two years ago when Republicans first took back control of the House is gone now. And in its place, I think, are a lot of doubts about just where this unruly caucus is headed.

CORNISH: And so, as they huddle, are they doing so under some big theme...

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: ...of this retreat?

WELNA: Well, this retreat is almost entirely about the leadership trying to get House Republicans on to the same page when it comes to the three big showdowns that are now looming: the debt ceiling that needs to be raised probably by mid-February; the more than $100 billion in automatic across-the-board spending cuts known as the sequester, which kicks in March 1st; and the expiration of government funding in late March, which could lead to a government shutdown if it's not worked out by then.

Right now, it appears House Republicans are sort of backing away from pushing the nation into default over the debt ceiling deadline. I think many of them felt their party paid a big price at the polls for the last debt ceiling showdown in August of 2011 when U.S. debt was downgraded for the first time.

I spoke this afternoon with a Tea Party-backed Republican, John Fleming of Louisiana. And he told me the thinking now is that the debt ceiling should be raised at least in the short term.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN FLEMING: We're talking about as little as three months, and it could be longer, but three months - three, six months, depending.

WELNA: Depending, he added, on how many cuts in spending Democrats agree to. Republicans still want a dollar in cuts for every dollar the debt ceiling is raised.

CORNISH: And as Tamara just mentioned, several prominent House Republicans have been talking about prioritizing obligations the treasury would honor if the debt ceiling is not raised. What's happened to that talk?

WELNA: Well, we're still hearing some of that talk. Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan spoke with some of us this afternoon. And he said he thought that the Obama administration should prioritize payments. And he'd like Congress to lay out just what those priorities should be. But while all this is still being debated here and nothing is really resolved, there does seem to be a consensus emerging that a debt ceiling fight is a loser for Republicans.

Here's Tea Party-backed Louisiana Republican John Fleming again.

FLEMING: Are we going to let the debt ceiling hit and close down government and checks don't go out? No, that's not going to happen. But where we have the real - I mean, think about it, the sequestration. Those cuts are going to go into effect by law. And it's going to hit a lot of programs that Obama favors. And even though we don't want defense to be cut, we just may have to hang tough.

WELNA: Republicans think they have the upper hand when it comes to the sequester. They compare that to President Obama having had the upper hand when it came to the expiring Bush tax cuts.

CORNISH: And just a little time left, David. But are Republicans talking about appealing to different voter groups, groups that went to President Obama last time around?

WELNA: Yes, women and minorities to be specific. Yeah, a discussion is planned here tomorrow morning that's being called Successful Communication with Minorities and Women. On it are three Hispanic women, but there are also three white male lawmakers.

And maybe even more curious is the fact that this discussion is taking place in a room at this resort that's called the Burwell Plantation. It's named after a plantation owned by a former British slaveholder who relocated from the North to the South, sort of a story of what's happened with the Republican Party.

CORNISH: NPR's David Welna reporting from the House Republican retreat near Williamsburg, Virginia. David, thank you.

WELNA: You're welcome, Audie.

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