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Congressional Republicans Plot Agenda At Annual Baltimore Retreat


A work retreat can bring people together or not. For House and Senate Republicans, their annual three-day retreat has some added pressure. It's an election year. That means along with plotting out their own agenda for the year, they also need to consider how the unpredictable race for the Republican presidential nominee could throw them off track. NPR's Susan Davis joins us from the retreat in Baltimore to talk about what we can expect in 2016 from Capitol Hill. And Sue, what are some of the ideas that Republicans are talking about there that might actually get a vote in Congress this year?

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Probably the boldest idea that we've heard has come from the House and from Speaker Paul Ryan. He's saying that he wants Republicans to come up with and put forward a complete alternative to President Obama's health care law.

MCEVERS: I mean, Republican's opposition to that health care law is very well-known. I mean, what's - why is this so important now?

DAVIS: So Republicans have voted to repeal some or all of the president's health care law at least 60 times. What they have never done is put forward how they would do it differently. And part of Paul Ryan's message to his colleagues here ism if we want America to trust us with the White House, we need to actually show them a complete alternative policy vision to how this country should be run.

MCEVERS: We also know that one of the issues that Republicans are talking about is poverty. Why are they talking about that now?

DAVIS: Yeah. This is another imprint of the Paul Ryan era in Congress. This has been an issue that is particularly important to him long before he got into leadership. When he was a rank-and-file member, he went on a national listening tour about the issues of poverty and the causes of it.

As you know, recently, he hosted a presidential candidate forum in South Carolina where - to get candidates to talk about this very issue. And he's said to his colleagues that if Republicans want to be a national governing party, they need to be able to talk about topics that they have historically shied away from. Poverty is one of those topics. It's an area where the Democratic Party has long been seen as a party that's come up with solutions to addressing poverty, programs that have helped the poor and largely seen as Democratic constituencies. And Paul Ryan is saying, look; we need to be able to compete on those grounds, and we need to get comfortable talking about these issues.

MCEVERS: Let's talk about the elephant in the room. I mean, isn't the Republican agenda really going to be set by the presidential nominee and not by Congress?

DAVIS: Right. So that's part of the intrigue of this year's retreat. Republicans say they're not going to take a back seat to defining conservative agenda in this election year. What they're not saying is that if the nominee is Donald Trump, someone who has offered policies that many Republicans oppose - for instance, when he said that we should ban Muslims from entering the country - Republicans say, you know, we're also on the ballot this year, and we have to come up with our own ideas to campaign on to differentiate ourselves from the nominee if it is Trump. Senator John Thune - he's a Republican from South Dakota - we asked him about this dynamic this morning, and this is what he said.


JOHN THUNE: Well, you know, I think, in a presidential campaign, the rhetoric gets kind of hot. I mean, it's just inevitable. And you know, we can't control what presidential candidates are going to say or going to do. The only thing we can do is control what we do here and what we do as individual members of Congress.

DAVIS: Now, Thune says he's optimistic that at the end of the day, the eventual nominee and Republicans in Congress are going to be on the same page, and, in his words, their agendas will synch up. But you have to member that this year, the U.S. Senate is also up at stake and that lawmakers don't want to leave anything to chance when it comes to keeping control of Congress.

MCEVERS: And I'm just trying to image politicians getting together for a retreat. I mean, is this, like, your typical work retreat?

DAVIS: Yes. I mean, there's no trust circles, so we don't have that. But they do have some trademark things of worker get-togethers. They've had a couple inspirational speakers. They've had the founder of Sam Adams Beer as well as one of the founders of Fitbit come and talk about entrepreneurship and starting small businesses in America. And in a large part, there's a lot of social aspect to it. It's a good way for members just to get out of town and get to know each other a little bit better.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Sue Davis. Thanks so much.

DAVIS: Thanks, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.