WILLIAMSBURG, Va.—Days away from Monday’s presidential inauguration that will kick-start Washington’s return to business, House Republicans traveled two hours away for three days of huddling and strategizing at the exclusive Kingsmill Resort.
They are meeting in sessions about the Constitution, American trends, and 21st century communications. They also are attending meetings that try to answer such questions as: “What Happened and Where Are We Now?” (the meeting on the election and its aftermath), “What Is the Role of the Republican Majority in the 113th Congress?” and “Who Speaks for Middle America?” Finally, they will try to inspire each other with meetings titled: “Turning It Around” and “Using Adversity to Our Advantage by Working Together.”
At least that is what the printed agenda said. The 40 or so reporters gathered to cover the House GOP retreat here were left with little to chew on beyond that printed schedule. Event planners basically put the reporters in lockdown, sequestering them all in one room in a separate building. Security, wearing radio earpieces, camped out nearby to ensure that journalists only left the room to use the bathroom or get food. Some of the security personnel explained that reporters could not move about because it made it harder for them to do their jobs of protecting the members of Congress.
So for several hours reporters remained isolated. Eventually, the GOP decided to throw the journalists a bone when, shortly after lunch, Paul Ryan, the former vice presidential candidate and still Republican congressman from Wisconsin, came to the media room for one of his more extensive post-election chats.
Ryan said that House Republicans are “discussing the possible virtue of a short-term debt limit extension.” The federal government is expected to hit its $16.4 trillion debt limit sometime between mid-February and early March.
Ryan said a debt limit extension of a few months would allow the country to avoid default and buy time for Democrats and Republicans to negotiate more long-term solutions to the nation’s financial crisis. Congress and the White House must reach agreements on a series of spending cuts, called a sequester and scheduled for March 1, that totals $110 billion, and on how to keep the government running when the current funding agreement ends on March 27, which threatens a government shutdown.
“What we’ve been doing is facilitating a conversation about the best way to achieve progress on controlling our deficits and our debt, controlling spending, with the goal of doing our job to help prevent a debt crisis, and getting this economy going to create jobs,” Ryan told reporters Thursday. “We believe that it would be wrong if we walk out of this spring with no achievement on debt reduction whatsoever, because that will hurt the country, that will hurt the economy and that’s why we believe we have to have a serious plan for tackling these things.”
Discussions of any short-term debt ceiling proposals comes on the heels of the New Year’s Day fiscal cliff debates that left many congressional Republicans divided. Ryan spent Thursday briefing Republicans, particularly the newly sworn in freshmen, behind closed doors about the approaching fiscal showdowns and their consequences. He said Republicans also have spent time during the retreat talking about how they must “recognize the realities of the divided government.” Reading between the lines it seems that GOP leaders are telling the rank and file that party unity is needed while facing off against a White House and Senate controlled by Democrats.
“I think what matters most is that people have a very clear view of what’s coming, so that there are no surprises,” Ryan said. “That means setting expectations accordingly so that we can proceed in a unified basis.”
Meanwhile, a group of conservative leaders delivered a letter to Republican House leaders at the retreat on Thursday that seemed to oppose any short-term debt limit increase like the ones being discussed in Williamsburg. The letter argued against raising the debt ceiling without including immediate and real spending cuts that put the government on a path to a balance budget within a decade.
The letter, signed by representatives from organizations such as the Family Research Council, Concerned Women For America, Americans for Prosperity, Heritage Action, and the Club for Growth, said it is a “moral obligation” to balance the budget within the next 10 years.
“Because of massive overspending, America is on an unsustainable fiscal path,” the letter stated. “Unless immediate action is taken, our future is destined to be that of Greek-style implosion or the slow managed decline of Western Europe. Neither option is acceptable.”