Smells like team spirit at the House Republicans' annual retreat

GOP wants to shred the 'party of no' label to become known as the 'alternative party'

CAMBRIDGE, Md. – With a year left in Congress’ legislative session, House Republicans are planning — in the words of top House leaders — to go “alternative.”

“We’re not just the opposition party,” House Speaker John Boehner told reporters on Thursday during the annual House Republican retreat here, where members are privately hashing out their plan forward. “We’re actually the alternative party.”

The days of “hell no we can’t” — also Boehner’s words — are behind them. Republicans want 2014 remembered for what they're for, not for what they're against.

On Friday, House Republicans plan to emerge from their three-day meeting at a resort along the icy banks of the Choptank River with a coordinated response to the policy goals President Barack Obama outlined in his State of the Union address and with a long-term strategy for the year ahead.

“The discussion at this retreat is going to be not just about opposing the policies that this president has been about over the last couple of years,” Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told reporters, “but it is to craft an alternative for the people of this country.”

Rebranding the GOP as "the alternative party" will take work, of course. There’s still scar tissue from the battles fought during Obama’s first term over health care reform and taxes a past that neither party appears willing to consider water under the bridge. And successfully translating GOP policy goals — whether they have bipartisan support or not — into law will be a cumbersome, if not a virtually impossible, task. But if they unite in 2014, Republicans believe, they can go the distance.

If only they can reach a consensus.

Before the confab began, House Republican leaders released their own wish list of proactive goals they think fall in line with the president’s call for action. The list includes initiatives to promote job skills training, natural gas production, workplace flexibility and scientific research funding. The list also points to bills the House passed last year.

Republicans hope to come away from the meeting with a semicohesive strategy for the year ahead on immigration, energy, jobs and the debt ceiling, GOP leaders said.

Among those issues, reaching an internal agreement on immigration seems the most pressing. While behind closed doors on Thursday, House Republican leaders will present attendees with a broad outline of “principles” for immigration reform. Border security is the starting point, Boehner said, adding that he sees the method of overhauling the immigration system as “critically important.”

“This problem’s been around for at least the last 15 years. It’s been turned into a political football. I think it’s unfair,” Boehner said. “I think it’s time to deal with it. But how we deal with it is going to be critically important.”

A stalwart group of lawmakers within the GOP conference has been agitating against the immigration reform effort from the beginning, a coalition that Boehner and his allies must factor in to any calculation if they hope to pass a bill this year. Instead of taking a comprehensive approach, like the Senate, which passed its own immigration overhaul bill in 2013, Boehner said he intends to move forward in a piece-meal approach that will tackle border security enforcement first. Still at issue is whether House Republicans will vote on a measure that offers a pathway to citizenship for immigrants living in the U.S. unlawfully.

Republicans began their retreat on Wednesday with talks from conservative journalists, followed by a briefing with pollsters and strategists about the state of the electoral map in 2014. That afternoon, they sat through TED talk-style motivational speeches “to provide a little creativity to our members,” said House Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers. One speech, titled “Robots for Humanity,” was about how drones and robots can assist people in everyday life.

After breakout sessions that covered ethics rules, communication strategies and tips on using Twitter and Facebook more effectively, the conference got a pep talk during dinner from College Football Hall of Fame coach Lou Holtz.

The real work began on Thursday, with detailed internal discussions about the party’s approach to several issues.

Early in the afternoon, Cantor delivered his own presentation, which emphasized how Republicans need to do a better job at showing the human effect of the policies they believe will help working Americans.

“We need to show people we care," Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz said during the meeting, according to an aide in the room who was not authorized to speak publicly about the private gathering.

Before dinner, GOP messaging expert Frank Luntz is scheduled to provide language tips to teach Republicans how to better connect with “hardworking Americans,” according to the official schedule. The conference will close on Friday with sessions on minority outreach.