By Rosalind Helderman and Ed OKeefe The Washington Post
WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — House Republicans are cloistered at a tony golf resort here for three days hoping to resurrect their battered political brand, as they prepare for what could be another damaging confrontation with President Barack Obama over federal spending.
At their annual retreat, House members said there is general fretting about the damage done to the party’s image by the strident tone adopted by some candidates and officials.
“It’s a time for self-reflection,” said one member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share details of the private discussions. “Our identity with the American people has really, really suffered, and this is a conversation about collectively restoring a values-driven identity.”
Although there was some urgency for a change, the consensus was that the change was about how to communicate, not about rethinking core policy positions.
“This is about tone. It’s about messaging and it’s about showing people what we’re for instead of what we’re against,” said Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell, a Republican, describing his message to House GOP members at a lunch-time session Thursday.
“Rape is a four-letter word — don’t say it,” the group was advised by a Republican pollster in another session, said one person familiar with the discussion. That was a reference to controversies about rape and abortion that were partly to blame for the GOP losing two Senate seats — in Indiana and Missouri — in November.
Sessions this week included advice on turning around troubled organizations from the chief executive of Domino’s Pizza and a motivational address from the first blind man to summit Mount Everest. But much of the retreat was devoted to what amounted to open-mic sessions to let members strategize for the upcoming fiscal fight.
The nation has reached its $16.4 trillion credit limit and without congressional action, the Treasury Department has said the government will be unable to meet its spending obligations sometime in February or early March. Many Republicans want to use the moment to extract deep spending cuts from Obama.
The president says that without increased borrowing authority, the nation will default on its debt obligations and send the world’s economy into a tailspin.
One possible course, aides said, would involve raising the debt ceiling for just a few months in exchange for several hundred billion dollars in budget cuts, probably culled from a bipartisan list developed in 2011 in talks led by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Vice President Joe Biden.
A longer-term debt-limit increase would be available thereafter, but only if the Republican-led House and the Democratic-led Senate approved a framework to set tax and spending policies for the next decade.
That would avoid a federal default and move the negotiation to areas in which the president seems more amenable and have less impact on the broader economy: the automatic spending cuts to military and domestic programs set to hit in early March and the expiration on March 27 of a funding bill to keep the government running.
“If we’re willing to do it, we want something in return,” said Rep. John Fleming, R-La., one of the chamber’s most fiscally conservative members. “Our constituents are going to demand that. Even if it’s short-term, what are we getting for that?”
House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said the goal is to use this moment to reduce deficits, while recognizing that Republicans are limited by the fact that they do not control the Senate or the White House.
“We think the worst thing for the economy is to move past these events that are occurring with no progress made on the debt and the deficit,” Ryan said, offering his most expansive exchange with reporters since his unsuccessful vice presidential bid. Aides said Ryan is reassuming his role as the GOP’s front man on budget issues.
The House Republicans’ retreat follows a particularly rocky period for them politically: The November election went poorly. Besides Obama’s defeat of Mitt Romney, Democrats enlarged their Senate majority and picked up eight seats in the House.
Lawmakers and staff members attending the retreat described the discussions as passionate and intense, but not angry.
“I think this is a time where now you can catch your breath a little,” said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., noting that the gathering comes just two months after Election Day and after weeks of intense wrangling over the “fiscal cliff” and the start of a new Congress.
The retreat will continue into today. One senior aide said that as of Thursday, the conversation was dominated by the fiscal debate. Members only briefly discussed gun control, a topic that Obama indicated this week will be a core plank of his second-term agenda. On that issue, Boehner told members privately what he has been saying publicly: The House will not act until it sees what the Senate does.
Republicans have spent more time broadly discussing a need to address the nation’s immigration laws and they will hold a session today on “successful communications with minorities and women.”
Walden, responsible for getting more Republicans elected to the House as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said he hopes the GOP will be more sensitive to how it appeals to Hispanics before future elections.
“We may not understand how what we say is interpreted by others and we have to be sensitive and understand the effect of our language,” he said.