House Republicans meet at secretive retreat

Chris Moody
Republican silhouette (Linda Braucht/Getty Images)
Republican silhouette (Linda Braucht/Getty Images)

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. -- A heavy drizzle is falling on the wooded golf course here at the Kingsmill Resort and Spa, where House Republicans are hidden away this week for a notably secretive retreat. Media are not allowed inside the building where the conferences is held, so reporters wait restlessly in a clubhouse restaurant separated by a puddle-filled parking lot.

A single television inside the clubhouse room is stuck on C-SPAN 2, where retired Wyoming Sen. Kent Conrad delivers a PowerPoint presentation about the federal budget, and the bespectacled former Senate budget chairman is droning on about how his former colleagues had failed to act on debt reduction. There are graphs and long lists of bullet points. It's 9:00 a.m., far too early for such excitement.

A bored reporter walks toward the TV and grabs the remote.

"I can't take it anymore," he says. "I'm sorry."

He changes the channel to CNN, which is airing a piece about Notre Dame football star Manti T'eo and "The Mystery of the Fictitious Girlfriend." No one in the room protests.

An aide walks in and everyone perks up. Perhaps he's brought over a lawmaker with some information about the meetings?

"How's it going in the white collar prison?" he asks. There is no one with him. Everyone looks back down at their computers.

Across the street, behind closed doors and surrounded by a small troop of armed guards, Republicans plot a way to use their majority status in the House to their advantage while at the same time bolstering the party's image nationally following the disappointing 2012 election.

The nation's Founding Fathers -- impersonators brought in from nearby colonial Williamsburg -- graced the members' presence the night before. Dressed in the highest fashion of late 18th-century, actors dressed as Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson spoke to the Republican lawmakers, perhaps as a reminder of what they're supposed to be fighting for. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell also stopped by, as well as Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind man ever to climb Mt. Everest. According to those present, the room was captivated. He spoke about "using adversity" as an advantage, a message that resonated to the House Republicans of the 113th Congress. "We got to see someone who had all this vision, and he can't even see," said one attendee, awed by the presentation.

But motivation was only a part of the program. One policy meeting during the conference was so sensitive that even some staff were not allowed inside. Just after 11:00 am on Thursday, speakers advised all aides not "relevant" to the conversation to kindly excuse themselves. Those in the room later described the conversation, which focused on the party's path forward over the next three months, as "intense."

Information was so tight that there was even an internal debate over whether reporters should be allowed to see the conference agenda. Eventually, an aide sneaked in a handful of bulletins for the information-hungry scribes. Scanning the documents, several reporters noticed that the Republicans would hold a panel discussion on Friday entitled, "Discussions on Successful Communication with Minorities and Women" in the "Burwell Plantation" room of the resort, which was named after a Virginia slaveholder. Naturally, an immediate flurry of excitable "Gotcha" photos and tweets followed.

* * *

After five hours of waiting, the first lawmaker arrived to meet the press. It was even someone who mattered: House Budget Committee chairman and former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan.

Wearing a casual pair of khakis and an open collar, Ryan offered the first details of the discussions. Republican leaders were working hard, he said, to ensure that the entire caucus was on the same page about how they would tackle upcoming legislative battles with Democrats. The party's more Tea Party-oriented members needed to understand that no progress would be made if they continued to refuse compromise, Ryan said, adding he had assured them that House leadership would strive to reach a deal to reduce the nation's skyrocketing debt problem.

Shortly after, Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican and the new chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, made the journey to the clubhouse for a talk about recruiting new candidates to run for office. He mentioned that Republicans were actively focused on bringing more women and minorities into the caucus.

"Obviously we have to address this. We have 50,000 young Hispanics reaching voter age every month," he said. "We need to communicate better. ...We may not understand how what we say is interpreted by others and we have to be sensitive and understand."

It wasn't long after that a reporter brought up the conference agenda that had been leaked out just hours before.

"In the vein of bad communications," the reporter began, "I'm not sure you're aware but the room in which the discussion tomorrow on successful communication with minorities and women is being held in a room named after a former slave-holding plantation. Um, did anybody think about that?"

Walden responded that he wasn't responsible for the schedule and that Democrats had previously met together at the same hotel and surely they used same room. But it didn't get him off the hook.

"Why are three white guys on the panel?" another reporter asked.

Walden sighed. "It is more than just three white guys on the panel," Walden said, correctly. "I mean, come on."

House Republicans aren't the only ones holding conference-wide meetings behind closed doors: Democrats in the chamber are planning their own equally secretive confab in Leesburg, Virginia in February.