Republicans Regroup at Annual Retreat

House Republicans wind up an annual retreat. They're regrouping after months of scandal and ethics questions. President Bush offered a message of unity Friday, but House members see coming elections as a challenge.

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SCOTT SIMON host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, a new website speaks for the persecuted in Iran. But first, House Republicans are winding up their annual retreat today. They're on Maryland's Eastern shore, regrouping after months of being dogged by scandal and charges of corruption. President Bush tried to rally the lawmakers on Friday with a message of unity in this election year, but as NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports, Republican House members know that they're going to have to win re-election on their own.

ANDREA SEABROOK reporting:

Baseball fans begin to fill the stands of spring training next week, hotdogs in hand and arcane statistics on their minds. Everyone knows that Hack Wilson holds the record for 191 RBIs in 1930, right? Well, this Republican retreat is like the spring training of politics. Primary elections begin next month, and all eyes are on this fall's World Series, the 2006 Congressional elections. Politics, too, has its arcane statistics.

Mr. TOM REYNOLDS (Chairman, National Republican Congressional Committee): You know, Ulysses S. Grant in 1874 lost 96 seats.

SEABROOK: That's New York's Tom Reynolds, the Chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. His whole job is getting House Republicans re-elected this year.

Mr. REYNOLDS: Woodrow Wilson and FDR lost seats. Dwight Eisenhower lost 48 in '58. Reagan lost six in 1986.

SEABROOK: Reynolds is talking political trivia, the conventional wisdom that in the sixth year of a president's term, his party almost always looses seats in Congress. That is a quote "law of political physics" Republicans would like to defy this year, and there are two theories about how to do it. Hang together in a national political campaign or fight for every seat, district by district, on local issues.

For his part, President Bush would like to keep that party together, and to that end, he helicoptered out to the retreat yesterday to praise and rally Republicans.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Last year was a year of accomplishment for the House of Representatives thanks to the leadership here at the table.

(Soundbite of applause)

President BUSH: And we're ready to lead again. We don't fear the future because we're going to shape the future of the United States of America.

SEABROOK: After the session with the President, House leaders were shuttled out to where the press are being quarantined in a restaurant a quarter mile from the retreat hotel.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert said on many issues Congress and Mr. Bush are unified and are looking for new ways to make their message fresh.

Representative DENNIS HASTERT (Republican, Illinois): How can we keep our economy going? How can we make this economy strong? How can, what do we have to do in energy and education to make our people the best and most competitive in the world?

SEABROOK: But others believe in the old adage, all politics is local. How can you run a national campaign, some Republicans ask, when the party is split over cuts in Medicare and education, secret wiretapping and immigration? Reynolds says he believes Republicans will keep their majority in November, but...

Mr. REYNOLDS: We have to not to take it for granted. We cannot be complacent. And we need to methodically win races. We need to keep retirements down. We need to keep doing our jobs, both here and back in our districts.

SEABROOK: Because, Reynolds says, the consequences of a lawmaker focusing too much on national issues are that voters choose someone closer to home to represent them.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, Cambridge, Maryland.

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