Money — and leverage — big themes at GOP retreat

HERSHEY, Pa. — Think of it as a family gathering for a family that has never before gathered in one place.

Republicans from the House and Senate met here in the “Sweetest Place on Earth” Thursday to hash out their agenda, determine what they will try to do with their newfound control of both chambers and present a public face of unity.

Usually the two teams of Republicans meet separately (often someone invokes the old yarn, “The Democrats are not the enemy; the other chamber is our enemy), but the House and Senate GOP spent most of Thursday together working through issues in teams led by bicameral leaders and committee chairmen.

Highlights:

Ernst to give GOP response to State of the Union: At a joint news conference, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, announced that freshman star Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, will give the Republican response to the State of the Union. Ernst stressed a get-it-done approach. “I am excited to get to work in order to craft and implement real solutions as we chart a new path forward for our great nation,” she said. The choice was tightly held, with few Republican staffers knowing about the announcement before it happened. As an unintended result, no one had made provisions to lower the mics or podium for Ernst (or provide a step for her to stand on), and she was surrounded by microphones at face level.

Is the Department of Homeland Security headed for a shutdown when its funding runs out Feb. 27? Republicans presented varying takes on “no” to this question, insisting that while they object to the president’s immigration policies and will pass legislation aiming to block those policies, that ultimately neither side will let the agency shut down. After the House passed a Homeland Security funding bill containing provisions that the president has threatened to veto, the question marks focus on the Senate. “Are there 60 votes there?” a reporter asked McConnell. “We’re going to try to pass [the House bill],” he answered, “If we’re unable, we’ll see what happens.” House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., spoke with reporters off camera on the topic. “Shutting down the Department of Homeland Security, that’s off the table,” he said, but then added, “What the Senate will do — I don’t know.”

The big discussion at the retreat? Money. And leverage: Republicans spoke at length about the plans for new balanced budgets — the House aims to pass a balanced budget in April — but GOP lawmakers are most fervently discussing if and how they would use the process of budget reconciliation. Under that process, which can be used once a year, a bill that includes revenue or spending can pass through the Senate with a simple majority vote. It can avoid the 60-vote hurdles that generally paralyze most other legislation. “There are a lot of discussions,” McCarthy told reporters when asked about reconciliation. A platoon of ideas is vying for inclusion, most prominently tax reform and Obamacare appeal.