- The Washington Times - Monday, January 29, 2007

CAMBRIDGE, Md. — House Republicans spent most of their 48 hours at last week’s retreat here examining why they lost the congressional majority and trying to formulate a winning way forward.

“If we continue to work together as a team, we will in fact earn our way back to majority status,” Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio said as members gathered at the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay.

The 160 Republicans attending the retreat heard from motivational speakers and peppered President Bush with questions about his Iraq policy during a private session with the commander in chief. Now, leaders say, it’s time to prove Republicans understand the message voters sent in the November elections.

“The solution is to bring solutions and be very practical,” said Rep. Kay Granger of Texas, the Republican Conference vice chairman. “Let them know we listened and we’re making some changes.”

Freshman members agree.

“We have to show the American public that we can get things done,” said Rep. Mary Fallin of Oklahoma. Voters “want to see Congress work on real solutions to real problems.”

Aides noted a higher turnout than in recent years, with only about 40 of the chamber’s 202 Republicans skipping the retreat. Several Republicans agreed members left Friday with a “back to basics” mentality focusing on fiscal responsibility and conservative principles in homage to the party’s roots.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was the lunch speaker Thursday, reminding members that “big ideas work” and saying American voters should understand Republicans want to help them, a vision he used to orchestrate the party’s 1994 gains.

Leaders said Mr. Gingrich challenged members to “think outside the box” and reminded them that winning a majority won’t be easy.

Republicans, most of whom have never served in the minority, will need to present these ideas as they battle Democrats on policy and procedure and for publicity.

“We’re going to intelligently propose good alternatives as we fight. We’re not going to try to create total gridlock, which basically shuts things down,” said Rep. John Carter of Texas, the Republican Conference secretary. “We’re going to have ideas that go with that fight, so that we are clearly showing what makes us Republican.”

Former University of Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz brought members to their feet following an oyster-bar dinner, telling football stories and urging the party to talk about its vision for America.

“It was the boost that we needed coming off a losing election,” one member said.

Rep. Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina said it felt more like a corporate retreat than one focused on “political nuts and bolts.”

“This retreat was about the broad vision that we walk away with, how we want to move the country forward, rather than talking about specifics of legislation,” he said.

Republicans also came away from the getaway realizing now that they have identified the reasons for losing, and it is time to stop licking wounds and start convincing the American public why they deserve to be trusted again.

Members agreed they must promise to control wasteful spending and to hold themselves and every member of the party to the “highest standards of ethical conduct,” Mr. Boehner said.

The Republican leader said to win, members must do four things: Re-establish credibility, use all of the tools available to the minority, advance new ideas and unite to work toward a common goal.

“The American people basically agree with us,” Mr. Boehner said. “We own the moral high ground, our president has the bully pulpit, and we have each other. The ability to work together is there, we need to use those tools that are available to us and find those solutions not forgetting our principles.”

The unity part may prove tough as members face public opposition to the war in Iraq and as there is a clear split in the party over immigration. But members said there is common ground on economic and energy policy.

Mr. Bush, speaking Friday, repeated themes of last week’s State of the Union address, saying Congress must curb pork spending, balance the budget without raising taxes and reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act.

“These are big ideas, and it’s going to require us working together to get the job done on behalf of the American people,” Mr. Bush said.

Leaders agreed the private, one-hour discussion with the president was cathartic, allowing members to gripe, to question and to rally.

“It has a settling effect when people see the strength and courage of his convictions and you get a glimpse into the broader thinking behind his decisions,” said Republican Conference Chairman Adam H. Putnam of Florida.

Deputy Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia said a central theme in Mr. Bush’s remarks was that Washington hasn’t changed him.

As for immigration, “It’s an example of where the president is still the same president. He is where he is,” Mr. Putnam said.

Most present for the discussion said while the passions over immigration are hot, members are struggling to agree on tough border security before tackling the more-divisive question of what to do with the estimated 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens currently in the United States.

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