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The memo was just about all Republican members were asked about.
A day into their retreat in West Virginia, members had thought they’d be taking a victory lap on tax reform and responding to President Donald Trump’s refreshingly-reserved, presidentially-toned State of the Union. But, members had already endured a deadly train crash and now as they stepped one-by-one into a conference room of reporters, word was out that the controversial Nunes memo – the one intelligence and FBI officials had expressed “grave concerns” about could come any moment. What did they think of the memo? Did they support its release? What about the Democrats’ rebuttal?
The memo was released publicly just shortly after House Republicans departed Friday (the senators departed Thursday), but most House Republicans appeared at ease with releasing it and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t bite when asked about if he had concerns that his own Senate Intelligence chairman hadn’t read it.
But ultimately, retreats are supposed to be a time for members to talk through public policy, the political landscape and figure out a game plan in the year ahead all while sporting business casual attire. But, despite Trump’s declaration Thursday that the party appeared more unified than ever, members left Friday still encircled by Trump’s own controversies and with plenty of disagreements about how the GOP will advance its business this year.
“We’re going through all this drama on the budget agreement, on the debt ceiling, but we don’t have 218 Republican votes for any of this. We don’t know that. Same with DACA,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, a moderate from Pennsylvania. “DACA, debt ceiling, budget agreement, omnibus , we don’t have 218 votes so are we united on those issues? No. We never are.”
It’s the issue that’s confounded the party time and time again from the halls of Congress to primary elections. But, if Republicans had once imagined that Trump would be uniquely situated to address the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the retreat just amplified their reality that Trump may not be able to bring the party together on it.
“We won’t have a single unified position on that,” Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Lankford, said, acknowledging the splits within the party about immigration strategy.
He stressed the GOP would need to find areas of consensus, but admitted “I don’t expect it to come out of this three-day time period.”
Trump made it clear during the retreat that he expects his conference to pass an immigration bill by March 5, the deadline he set for the expiration of DACA, But lawmakers admit they aren’t making much progress. And in the span of just a few hours, Republican lawmakers careened from one position to the next on what they thought should happen. The Senate’s No. 3 John Thune told reporters Thursday morning he thought it would be best to narrow DACA to debate to no more than two areas: a path to some kind of legal status for DACA and border security, a suggestion that ran contrary to Trump’s framework of “four pillars.”
The White House has rolled out a framework that would provide citizenship for 1.8 million recipients for DACA, in exchange for $25 billion in border security, the eradication of the diversity lottery and drastic changes to so-called chain migration. But, the President hasn’t been clear if it’s an offer or his last and final negotiating position.
Conservatives in the House, meanwhile, blasted Thune’s position.
“Senator Thune represents a state that’s a long ways from the southern border, and so making a suggestion that a two-pillar answer is going to get support in the House is a non-starter,” House Freedom Caucus Chairman and North Carolinian Mark Meadows told reporters when asked about the South Dakotan’s comments.
House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte touted his own bill in scrums, a bill that many have acknowledged would be dead on arrival in the Senate.
“I think the Senate would be well advised to focus on the Senate’s work and the House would be well advised to focus on the House’s work,” Goodlatte said.
Dent argued he thought leadership’s first responsibility was to members running in tough midterm races and that any immigration bill should be aimed to help moderates hold onto competitive seats in diverse, suburban districts. Dent himself will retire at the end of the year.
The President then muddled the message. In his speech, the prepared remarks suggested Trump would explicitly call for the Senate to bring his framework to the floor and instead he stopped short of that.
“I know that the Senate is planning to bring an immigration bill to the floor in coming weeks and I’m asking that the framework we submitted – with great flexibility,” Trump said. “Great flexibility working with both parties – that something very positive will come out of it for our country.”
In a matter of days, McConnell is expected to unleash an immigration debate on the floor of the US Senate and no one at the retreat could articulate exactly what the outcome will be.
“We’ll see who can get to 60 votes,” McConnell told reporters about the immigration process.
The budget was another open question at the GOP retreat. Newly-minted House Budget Chairman Steve Womack suggested it made sense to skip a budget this year and focus instead on overhauling the budget process.
“Only talk,” he said when pressed on if he’d told members he wouldn’t pursue a budget this year.
The budget, of course, sets topline spending numbers for funding, but has evolved into a mostly partisan and symbolic process in recent years. Many of the budgets haven’t been use to set spending, but instead to try and pass policy objectives like health care and tax reform along simple, majority votes in the US Senate.
Republicans in the House have argued that the Senate should change its rules so that appropriations bills – those that direct money to go to specific programs and agencies – could be passed along a simple majority vote in the Senate.
“If we pushed any idea on our friends on the other side of the Capitol, it’s that get us a simple majority vote on funding this government in the Senate,” Womack said.
Republicans left their conference with a plan to keep the government funded until March 22 and with a vote expected Tuesday. But, the House Freedom Caucus and defense hawks have expressed concerns with that strategy in the past and in the Senate, McConnell will need 60 votes.
Moderate Democrats don’t appear interested in rehashing another shutdown, but there are still questions about whether a more than month-long continuing resolution will fly with Democrats.
Throughout the conference, Republicans tried to express optimism about the year ahead. Rep. Steve Stivers, chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, addressed reporters about a landscape he said wasn’t nearly as dire as some have suggested.
“I think we’re going to hold the House and I think things will be OK for us,” Stivers said.
The party also took every opportunity to promote their tax bill and test out messaging aimed at discrediting Democrats for voting against their bill.
But the reality is the party has endured an unusual clip of retirements and members announcing they will seek other offices. All told, more than 40 Republicans including many prominent chairman have announced they are stepping down from Congress at the end of the year.
Mac Thornberry, chairman of House Armed Services, told reporters he didn’t blame members for fleeing.
“Joy would not be one of the top ten words I would use to describe it,” he said of the job.
CNN’s Deirdre Walsh, Phil Mattingly and Kristin Wilson contributed to this report.