Republicans End Retreat Split On Key Issues — Except That Obama Is Bad

HERSHEY, Pa. — Newly invigorated congressional Republicans ended their joint House-Senate retreat in this chocolate town divided on how to handle pressing problems like immigration, homeland security funding and a contingency on health care.

The honeymoon from their massive election victory gave way to a recognition that the only thing uniting them was their opposition to President Barack Obama, as they take on the challenge of running both chambers of Congress. Unlike previous years, the party was unable to find a path forward on key issues.

Senate Republicans didn’t settle on a viable plan to avoid a shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security next month. Leaders acknowledged that the House-passed GOP plan, which also blocks Obama’s executive actions on deportation relief, may not pass the upper chamber. “We’re going to try to pass it,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said. “And if we’re unable to do that we’ll see what happens.” (It’s all but guaranteed to fail.)

Many GOP senators lack enthusiasm for an all-out brawl with Obama on immigration, and a faction of House Republicans openly criticized their leaders’ bill.

“I think it’s a clear overreach,” Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA) said of his party’s immigration plan. “I think not having a clear message on the issue is a drag on the party.”

Republican leaders and their press aides mingled with dozens of reporters here in an action-packed Thursday which included closed-door strategy meetings in the Hershey Lodge resort during the afternoon and an open bar in the evening serving beer, whiskey and — Speaker John Boehner’s drink of choice — merlot wine.

Republicans also met to plot a response if the Supreme Court knocks down health insurance subsidies for millions of Americans. But here too they were stymied — as they’ve been for five years on an Obamacare alternative. The Court case adds urgency for them to find consensus ahead of a likely June ruling.

“We’re obviously doing contingency planning for King v. Burwell. It would be wrong not to,” House Ways & Means Chair Paul Ryan (R-WI) said after the meeting. There’s no plan of action yet — he said discussions were ongoing.

More broadly, Republican leaders had a message for rank-and-file members: let’s govern responsibly and focus on the art of the possible. Part of the intent was to downplay expectations for transformative change while Obama remains president.

McConnell cited trade and cyber-security as likely areas of agreement between Congress and Obama. Ryan stressed that new trade agreements were possible but only if Obama fought to bring Democrats on board.

“I think the most positive thing [coming out of the retreat],” Boehner said, “is we’ve got a group of new Republican members in the Senate, we’ve got a group of new Republican members in the House. And we’ve all had an opportunity to get to know each other a little bit.”

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