There is much to discuss at this year's winter retreat for House Republicans in Williamsburg, Va., and members are encouraged to speak freely in their quest for party unity after a lame duck session that was plagued by a series of grueling legislative battles.
Republican lawmakers are spending the three days before the inauguration of a president they fought hard to defeat at a charming golf resort about three hours south of the nation's capital, holding a private strategy and motivational summit. The meeting offers these tired soldiers emotional and physical respite after a finish to the last congressional session that dragged into the New Year's holiday as lawmakers raced to find a deal to avoid the fiscal cliff.
That battle is behind them, but memories still linger over how President Barack Obama succeeded in raising taxes, an exercise Republicans vowed never to take part in. Many of them played along anyway to avoid an even more severe tax increase, but the result left part of the caucus fractured after conservatives urged their colleagues to hold their ground.
In revenge, a handful of rogue conservatives attempted a coup of House Speaker John Boehner. Their efforts fell flat, and the public act of defiance did not bode well for unity.
Then, faced with immense public pressure to provide federal relief (aka billions of taxpayer dollars) to regions hit hardest by Superstorm Sandy, members battled among themselves over whether to offer the money without first matching the emergency spending with cuts elsewhere. Those calling for a clean bill without the offsets triumphed, leaving the hardline conservatives 0 for 2.
But the fiscal cliff and arguments over Sandy were merely a preview of things to come. Looming ominously in the future are a series of fresh fights with Democrats, and it will take a united Republican front to hold them off. Looking ahead, the president has vowed to aggressively pursue gun control and immigration reform, emotional issues on which even Democrats don't universally agree. Congress also will soon be asked to approve an increase in the debt ceiling so the federal government can meet its spending obligations.
In a race for message control, it's not a fair fight in the least. The president will have the benefit of a streamlined message machine and a bully pulpit; the House has hundreds of separate members, each angling for TV time. While the Republicans need not agree on every detail, they do need to know where the party is headed and how the differing coalitions within the caucus plan to tackle the battles ahead. This week's conference will be a good first step.
Aided by motivational speakers and seasoned advisers, there may be moments—safely guarded in a private resort swarming with armed security—of healing, and perhaps even reconciliation. The healing could be preceded by internal fights, but hopefully for Republicans, they will be the constructive kind where you hug it out afterward. The retreat will give Boehner the opportunity he needs to take the temperature of his caucus, and give his members the time they need to make themselves heard.