GOP lawmakers gather amid division

House Speaker John Boehner

Story highlights

  • House and Senate Republicans will meet jointly for the first time in a decade
  • Conservatives are frustrated with leadership

(CNN)Chocolate is on the menu and unity is the message as Republicans head to Hershey, Pennsylvania, for the first joint GOP House and Senate retreat in 10 years.

But as House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell lay the groundwork for their agenda on Capitol Hill this year, tension from conservatives unhappy that their leaders aren't being bold enough could make things awkward.
Comedian Jay Leno is slated to warm up the group on Wednesday night. But even before boarding buses to Pennsylvania, some Republicans clearly weren't ready to sing kumbaya.
    "I think the leadership is unified - unified in doing very little," conservative Rep. Tim Huelskamp told CNN.
    The Kansas Republican told CNN it was time to plot a way forward to repeal Obamacare and roll back the president's actions on immigration -- not focus on finding compromises with President Barack Obama.
    "They want to all get along with the President, which is not the election results," Huelskamp said about GOP leaders, adding, "that's misreading exactly the opposite of what November 2014 is about."
    Huelskamp was one of the 25 House Republicans who tried to deny Boehner his third term as Speaker, opposing him on a vote earlier this month. This vocal group is demanding that Boehner and McConnell go big and schedule votes on a variety of proposals to highlight a contrast with the President and congressional Democrats, even if those things don't have the chance of becoming law.
    Other House Republicans are fed up that this small bloc of conservatives has been able to force the debate to tack to the right, and start off the New Year with a focus on the divisions inside the party on hot button issues like immigration.
    Rep. Adam Kinzinger
    "At some point our far right has got to understand that us 'regular conservatives' are not necessarily on board with what they want to do," Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger told CNN. He noted, "our caucus has got to understand that sometimes the noisiest 25 in the caucus is not a majority."
    In another potential headache for GOP leaders, a new group of House conservatives is setting up a formal structure to meet regularly and develop policy proposals. These members don't believe the current group that already does this - known as the Republican Study Committee (RSC) - is sufficiently independent of the leadership.
    The current RSC Chair, Texas Rep. Bill Flores, told CNN his group was already influencing the agenda in the House.
    "Look at what we've had on the floor- that's nothing but a conservative agenda," he said.
    The splits that have emerged in public are sure to be highlighted in closed door meetings in Hershey. Organizers have planned breakout sessions on immigration, health care and the budget process. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, columnist Peggy Noonan, and author Walter Isaacson are also slated to address the group.
    But Kinzinger warned "our flanks in the party have got to understand that when you work as a team and accomplish 70%m it's way better than what we had last week," referring to the contentious debate over immigration.
    Republican leaders started out the year putting a priority on items conservatives wanted to tackle. The House voted on bills approving the Keystone pipeline, repealing a key provision of Obamacare, and reversing some of the Wall Street reforms the President pushed for in 2010.
    Right before members left for the retreat, the House approved a funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security that also attached a series of amendments nullifying the President's most recent executive action on immigration.
    GOP leaders also allowed a vote on a measure that went even further -- it eliminated a program that deferred deportations for so-called "Dreamers" - children of those who entered the U.S. illegally. While the bill passed, a group of 26 House Republicans opposed that amendment dealing with deportations on young people, with many saying that proposal went too far.
    The President had already threatened vetoes on the bulk of the GOP bills the House was passing. But at a meeting with bipartisan congressional leaders with President Obama on Wednesday there was a lot of talk about trying to focus on the things where both sides could agree.
    Republican aides are setting low expectations for the retreat - saying this is the beginning of discussions on the way forward on key priorities like getting rid of Obamacare, drafting major tax reform legislation, pushing jobs bills, and cutting federal spending.
    "It's important that we get together, open up lines of communication and unify around some goals that we have for the upcoming Congress," House GOP Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rogers told CNN.
    One controversial decision leaders are still grappling with is whether or not to use a procedure known as "budget reconciliation" to try to repeal Obamacare. If they decide to use this process - one that is available for items that impact the debt and the deficit - Senate leaders would just need a simple majority to pass legislation, which gets around a likely Democratic-led filibuster on Obamacare.
    Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a tea-party favorite, in a speech before Heritage Foundation this week, said Congress should use "every procedural tool available including reconciliation to repeal Obamacare with 51 votes in the Senate."
    But other congressional Republicans argue it should be reserved for something the President could sign - like tax reform or a bill boosting infrastructure across the country.
    Huelskamp said if leaders decided to use that process to do tax reform instead of repealing Obamacare that would be "a very stupid Republican decision - we're going to help corporations and let the rest of these guys suffer?"
    One potential complication for McConnell is maneuvering his plans while three Senate Republicans - Cruz, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul - are preparing possible presidential campaigns for 2016. But Rubio and Paul are skipping the retreat.