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4:11 pm
Fri January 31, 2014

After 3-Day Retreat, GOP Battle Plan Still Only An Outline

Originally published on Fri January 31, 2014 7:19 pm

House Republicans headed back to Washington on Friday from a resort along the frozen waters of the Chesapeake Bay. They were there for a three-day retreat aimed at mapping out a legislative strategy for this midterm election year.

One of the most pressing issues they face is the need next month for Congress to raise the nation's debt limit. GOP lawmakers seem leery of another debt ceiling showdown, and their leaders are pushing to act on immigration this year.

Lest there were any appetite among House Republicans for tacking a list of demands onto a raise in the statutory borrowing limit, Speaker John Boehner made clear at the GOP retreat that this time, threatening default was not in his playbook.

"We know what the obstacles are that we face," Boehner said, "but listen: we believe that defaulting on our debt is the wrong thing. We don't want to do that."

That marked a stark departure from what became known three years ago as "the Boehner rule," which was the speaker's insistence that a dollar be cut from the federal budget for every dollar the debt ceiling is raised. That rule prevailed in a debt ceiling deal three years ago, when huge deficits loomed.

But deficits are no longer the talk of Washington, and President Obama says this time, he wants the debt ceiling raised with no conditions attached. Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan acknowledged the weak hand his party is playing this time.

"The debt's going up, and we have I think a greater obligation than simply just to pass it along," Camp said. "But there is a political reality that the administration, and particularly the president, doesn't see it that way."

Even debt hard-liners seem ready to toss in the towel.

"I think we'd be glad to set terms, but as we saw through the shutdown, they were not interested in talking about anything," said Rep. Marlin Stutzman of northern Indiana, who has Tea Party ties.

Meanwhile, House Republicans were presented at the retreat with a two-page list of principles their leaders say will shape a long-awaited immigration bill. Heading the list is tougher border enforcement, something immigration overhaul skeptics have been demanding and which Boehner endorsed.

"You can't begin the process of immigration reform without securing our borders, and the ability to enforce our laws," Boehner said. "Everyone in our conference understands that's the first step in terms of meaningful reform of this problem."

Unlike the sweeping immigration bill the Senate passed last year, there is no path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants laid out in the House GOP principles. Only those brought by their parents might acquire expedited citizenship under the House plan. Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan is a leading voice in the House GOP on immigration.

"I do not think you should have a special path to citizenship for the undocumented immigrant. I've been pretty clear about that," Ryan said. "This is why we're not going to take the Senate bill and we're not going to engage in a process that could result in the Senate bill."

The principles do call for giving legal status to unauthorized immigrants who meet a series of conditions. That strikes Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger as problematic.

"If you legalize somebody without a pathway to citizenship, you're creating, in essence, a class of people that have no chance of becoming citizens," Kinzinger said.

But many House Republicans don't even want legalization of those immigrants. One of them is North Carolina Rep. Patrick McHenry.

"Those that willfully broke the law should not be allowed to just continue to break the law," McHenry said. "So for me, as matter of principle, I don't think that legalization of those who willfully broke the law should be a part of our agenda."

And Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador questions the timing of tackling immigration during an election year.

"It's a great issue for Republicans to resolve; it's a bad issue for us to resolve this year," Labrador said.

Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, who heads the House GOP re-election effort, foresees an immigration bill only after most primaries are over.

"My hunch is it doesn't come up, you know, tomorrow," Walden said. "It's probably months out."

If the retreat aimed to reach a consensus on these divisive issues, none emerged; a closing press conference was canceled.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

House Republicans wrapped up a retreat today at a resort along the frozen waters of the Chesapeake Bay. The annual meeting is supposed to help the party map out legislative strategy, but it ended with no clear consensus. This is a midterm election year, and the issues on the table are divisive ones, such as the debt ceiling and immigration. NPR's David Welna was at the retreat.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Lest there were any appetite among House Republicans for tacking a list of demands onto a raise in the statutory borrowing limit, Speaker John Boehner made clear at the GOP retreat that, this time, threatening default was not in his playbook.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: We know what the obstacles are that we face. But, listen, we believe that defaulting on our debt is the wrong thing. We don't want to do that.

WELNA: That marked a stark departure from what became known three years ago as the Boehner rule, which was the speaker's insistence that a dollar be cut from the federal budget for every dollar the debt ceiling is raised. That rule prevailed in a debt ceiling deal three years ago when huge deficits loomed. But deficits are no longer the talk of Washington. And President Obama says, this time, he wants the debt ceiling raised with no conditions attached. Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp acknowledged the weak hand his party is playing this time.

REPRESENTATIVE DAVE CAMP: The debt's going up, and we have, I think, a greater obligation than simply just to pass it along. But there is a political reality that the administration, and particularly the president, doesn't see it that way.

WELNA: Even debt hardliners seem ready to toss in the towel. Congressman Marlin Stutzman of northern Indiana has Tea Party ties.

REPRESENTATIVE MARLIN STUTZMAN: I think we'd be glad to set terms. But as we saw through the shutdown, they were not interested in talking about anything.

WELNA: Meanwhile, House Republicans were presented at the retreat with a two-page list of principles their leaders say will shape a long-awaited immigration bill. Heading the list is tougher border enforcement, something immigration overhaul skeptics have been demanding and which Speaker Boehner endorsed.

BOEHNER: Well, listen, you can't begin the process of immigration reform without securing our borders and the ability to enforce our laws. Everyone in our conference understands that's the first step in terms of meaningful reform of this problem.

WELNA: Unlike the sweeping immigration bill the Senate passed last year, there is no path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants laid out in the House GOP principles. Only those brought by their parents might acquire expedited citizenship under the House plan. Wisconsin's Paul Ryan is a leading voice in the House GOP on immigration.

REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN: I do not think you should have a special path to citizenship for the undocumented immigrant. I've been pretty clear about that. This is why we're not going to take the Senate bill, and we're not going to engage in a process that could result in the Senate bill.

WELNA: The principles do call for giving legal status to unauthorized immigrants who meet a series of conditions. That strikes Illinois Republican Adam Kinzinger as problematic.

REPRESENTATIVE ADAM KINZINGER: If you legalize somebody without a pathway to citizenship, you're creating, in essence, a class of people that have no chance of becoming citizens.

WELNA: But many House Republicans don't even want legalization of those immigrants. One of them is North Carolina's Patrick McHenry.

REPRESENTATIVE PATRICK MCHENRY: Those that willfully broke the law should not be allowed to just continue to break the law. So for me, as a matter of principle, I don't think that legalization of those that willfully broke the law should be a part of our agenda.

WELNA: And Idaho Republican Raul Labrador questions the timing of tackling immigration during an election year.

REPRESENTATIVE RAUL LABRADOR: It's a great issue for Republicans to resolve. It's a bad issue for us to resolve this year.

WELNA: Oregon's Greg Walden, who heads the House GOP re-election effort, foresees an immigration bill only after most primaries are over.

REPRESENTATIVE GREG WALDEN: When you lay out a major policy initiative like immigration, I don't know when it's going to appear on the schedule. My hunch is it doesn't come up, you know, tomorrow. It's probably months out.

WELNA: If the retreat aimed to reach a consensus on these divisive issues, none emerged. A closing press conference was cancelled. David Welna, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.