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Republicans Retreat To Regroup On Immigration, Debt Ceiling


Leaving Washington, D.C. for the frozen banks of the Chesapeake Bay might not be everybody's idea of a great late January getaway, but that's where House Republicans packed off for a three-day retreat this week. They gathered at a resort in Cambridge, Maryland, to try to reach agreement on a few big issues, among them immigration and the need once again to raise the debt ceiling.

A lot of reporters who cover Congress went along too, including NPR's congressional correspondent David Welna. David, thanks very much for being with us.


SIMON: The implication of a retreat is you get away from everyday distractions and that means you, my friend, reporters. So how welcome were you reporters when you showed up?

WELNA: Reporters may be distractions, but they're also an inevitable part of lawmakers existence, whether they want it or not. We were actually invited to go along out there. They kept us at a very healthy, in their view - and unhealthy in our view - distance from them. A few came back to talk to us from time to time, but generally, the sense was that they were not terribly eager for us to be following their proceedings which all unfolded behind closed doors.

SIMON: What could you glean, if anything, about what issues seemed to bubble up?

WELNA: Immigration was really the hot issue there. Speaker John Boehner has decided that he wants to do something on immigration this year. There's a lot of doubting among House Republicans, whether this is the best time to do it. There's a proposal to give legal status to people who are in the country illegally now, not citizenship necessarily, which is what the Senate wants, but there's also a lot of mistrust about doing something that President Obama might use for whatever purposes he wants.

Steve Scalise is a leader of House conservatives and he expressed that sentiment.

REPRESENTATIVE STEVE SCALISE: People wonder, you know, if you pass a bill that's got some things that might be good, some things that might be bad, is the president just going to pick and choose what he enforces.

WELNA: So, as you can hear, there are a lot of misgivings and this is quite a divisive topic.

SIMON: Treasury Secretary Lew says the government runs out of money next Friday, won't be able to borrow anymore money unless the debt ceiling is raised. Any agreement on that?

WELNA: Well, the agreement seems to be not to put all kinds of conditions on raising the debt ceiling this time. In the past, House Republicans have stuck to what they call the Boehner Rule, which is a dollar in spending cuts for every dollar that we raise the debt ceiling. But there's not much fervor about the deficit right now and I think Republicans are very wary about being seen as causing another crisis on Capitol Hill.

So instead, they're proposing that it be the Democrats who come up with some sort of a proposal to cut spending that would go along with raising the debt ceiling. Patrick McHenry is a Republican from North Carolina.

REPRESENTATIVE PATRICK MCHENRY: This has always been placed on the House to lead. The President is required to lead. He's made it clear that he wants a clean debt ceiling. His party controls one-half of Congress and we'd like to see their plan put forward.

WELNA: So they're sort of saying you go first to the Democrats.

SIMON: We've been hearing for a few months now that Republicans in the House feel chastened by the government shutdown. Speaker Boehner has a stronger hand than ever, he's using this to bring about consensus. What's your impression?

WELNA: Well, you know, I think that there is a real desire by House Republicans to be seen as doing something positive, productive on Capitol Hill this year. They are going into midterm elections. They do have very low standing in public opinion polls, but the issues that they raised at this retreat really are divisive and it's going to be a tough time, I think, to find legislation that even a majority of them can vote on.

SIMON: NPR's congressional correspondent, David Welna. Thanks so much for being with us.

WELNA: You're welcome, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.