Republican Lawmakers Retreat Great For Face Time, But Divisions Remain

Jan 16, 2015
Originally published on January 16, 2015 8:31 pm

Republican lawmakers of the House and Senate emerged from a rare joint retreat in Hershey, Pa., a town known best for its chocolate, with little to show for it.

Unlike last year's House retreat where lawmakers unveiled their principles for an overhaul of the nation's immigration overhauls, there was little grand takeaway.

"The most positive thing is we've got a group of new Republican members in the Senate, a group of new Republican members in the House, and we've all had an opportunity to get to know each other a little better," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters at a press conference Thursday, standing alongside Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

That much seemed to be true — in conversations with nearly a dozen Republican lawmakers, each pointed to the opportunity to talk with members of the opposite chamber and hear their views.

But for all the talking, Republicans remain divided on how to best move forward to fund the Department of Homeland Security, a bill that has become inextricably linked with immigration.

The bill that passed the House earlier this week would roll back some of President Obama's actions on immigration and drew the opposition of even some moderate House Republicans like Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif.

Denham said that while President Obama had put "hurdles" in Congress' way, the bill that the House voted "sets us back on immigration reform" and "sends a mixed message to the American public."

"I think that by adding the deferred action amendment in here, it goes back to a situation where we've got kids that through no fault of their own ... now are going to be at the top of the list for ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] to deport if this were to become law," he said. "I think that sends the wrong message to the American public about what our overall goals for reform are."

But other Republicans, including Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, said Republicans need to take a strong stand.

"We can't always gravitate to the lowest common denominator," he said, noting that President Obama had "totally overstepped on his executive amnesty."

McConnell told reporters that his chamber would try to pass the House's DHS funding bill — with the immigration-related policy riders.

"If we're unable to do that, we'll see what happens," he said.

The math is not on McConnell's side. The bill is likely dead in the Senate, where Democrats have enough votes to filibuster the measure.

"The House is going to work its will. The Senate is going to work its will. ... We'll find some way to resolve our differences." - House Speaker John Boehner

"The magic number in the Senate is 60," Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., acknowledged.

"We want to give our members an opportunity to express their opposition to the president's action," he added. "But we also realize that at the end of the day in the Senate, it's going to take 60 votes."

When asked about the chasm between the two chambers, Boehner said, "The House is going to work its will. The Senate is going to work its will. ... We'll find some way to resolve our differences."

There's little time for that to happen.

Republican leadership in the Senate vowed to make a bill to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline their first priority, and that could take several weeks of precious floor time — meaning lawmakers would have little time to pass an alternative to meet DHS's funding deadline at the end of February. Missing the deadline would weaken the party on national security — one of the traditional three prongs of the Republican Party platform — as the party heads toward the 2016 presidential election. It would also be an early blow to the new Republican-controlled Congress.

Still, Republicans remained confident that the Homeland Security funding bill would pass on time, one way or another.

"We will pass a DHS bill. It will be passed on time. We will not shut down this part of the government," Denham said. "There are important issues within the DHS bill that we cannot play politics on."

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Republicans from the House and Senate just wrapped up a retreat in Pennsylvania. It's the first time in 10 years that they've held their retreats together, a sign of how much party leadership want the groups to collaborate now that the GOP controls both chambers of Congress. But as NPR's Juana Summers reports, the retreat ended without consensus on one big issue.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Republicans took a two-day retreat in Hershey, Pennsylvania, a tourist town known as The Sweetest Place on Earth, to find common ground on big issues facing Congress. But one topic, one that Republicans don't agree on, dominated discussion this week. Republicans remain deadlocked over how to confront President Obama on immigration.

Earlier this week, House Republicans passed a bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security, but attached policy provisions that would rollback Obama's actions on immigration, including last month's move to allow people who are in the country illegally, but have close family who are here legally, to stay. The House bill would also overturn Obama's 2012 program allowing children who were brought by their parents to the U.S. illegally to stay. While the bill did pass the House, some moderate Republicans, like Congressman Jeff Denham of California, said it went too far.

REPRESENTATIVE JEFF DENHAM: I think by adding the deferred action amendment in here it goes back to a situation where you've got kids that came here to no fault of their own that we need to have a full discussion and debate on that now are going to be put at the top of the list for ICE to deport, if this were to become law. I think that that sends the wrong message to the American public on what our overall reform ideas are.

SUMMERS: But others, like Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz, said that Republicans needed to take a strong stand.

REPRESENTATIVE JASON CHAFFETZ: Well, look, we can't always gravitate to the lowest common denominator. I think we've got to do what we believe is right. And I think the president totally overstepped - totally - in his executive amnesty.

SUMMERS: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he'd like to see the Senate pass the House's bill. But the math will make that difficult. Senator John Thune, of South Dakota, put it this way...

SENATOR JOHN THUNE: The magic number in the Senate is 60.

SUMMERS: To get 60 votes in the Senate, this bill would have to get support of some Senate Democrats along with nearly all Republican senators, and that's unlikely to happen. Even if the bill did reach President Obama, he's said he'd veto it. That would put Congress back at the starting line with a tight deadline. Lawmakers only have until February 27 to figure out how to fund the Homeland Security Department. That's when money appropriated under the current spending bill runs out. Juana Summers, NPR News, Hershey, Pennsylvania. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.