GOP seeking bold ideas, common ground at retreat

By George Cahlink | 01/11/2016 06:41 AM EST

House and Senate Republicans will map out a legislative strategy for 2016 aimed at setting up election-year contrasts to Democrats while also seeking limited common ground at this week’s three-day bicameral retreat.

House and Senate Republicans will map out a legislative strategy for 2016 aimed at setting up election-year contrasts to Democrats while also seeking limited common ground at this week’s three-day bicameral retreat.

The discussions will likely include tax reform and securing a path forward for the long-sought bipartisan overhaul of the nation’s energy policies.

"My basic premise for taking this job is making sure that we offer the country a clear choice for the direction that we want to lead," Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said during a press conference last Thursday. "This means putting together a bold pro-growth agenda. And it means putting it together quickly."


Ryan conceded that large parts of the agenda are not likely to translate into floor votes or become law until a new president takes office. But, he said, the GOP should "go big on ideas" in the coming months to show its governing plans for the country. Among the ideas he mentioned were addressing poverty, health care alternatives and tax reform.

"This is going to be developed through a bottom-up collaborative process," said Ryan in an effort to give rank-and-file members more of a say in policymaking.

Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said on the House floor Friday that members would have the chance to help develop ideas at this week’s retreat, scheduled to kick off Wednesday in Baltimore.

Even though Ryan is pushing ideas broader than specific legislation for 2016, some policy fights will play out this year, particularly the 12 spending bills the GOP wants to consider. They are certain to come up during the retreat.

Several conservative lawmakers say those bills are the GOP’s best option for taking on the administration’s policies through funding cuts and riders. Members also hope that, despite last fall’s bipartisan two-year budget deal, the House and Senate approve spending bills with spending below existing caps.

Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), a leader of the House Freedom Caucus, suggested Republican leaders will need to do more than talk bold ideas to appease conservatives. He said the "rubber meets the road" with spending legislation and those bills must make clear the GOP is not just a party that "spends a little less than Democrats."

Senior appropriator Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) said on Friday that he too expects to see policy fights once again play out on the spending bills. He noted Ryan and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have agreed to at least try to consider the 12 bills individually. Senate Democrats have said they won’t block debate on the appropriations bills, as they have in recent years.

Energy, taxes

Policy legislation will also come up at the retreat, and GOP lawmakers could lay the seeds for a comprehensive energy overhaul and additional tax code changes.

Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas), the chairman of the Republican Study Committee who also sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said there’s room for a deal on a House-passed energy package, H.R. 8, and a proposed, broader Senate bill, S. 2012.

"I’d like to see us work together to get some of the Senate bill approved, and then I think we can go further. We need a bold 21st-century energy plan," said Flores, who said any comprehensive bill should have an increased focus on nuclear power and carbon-based fuels.

Flores said it would be all but impossible to do anything regarding opening a nuclear waste disposal facility at Yucca Mountain, Nev., until Reid retires at the end of the year. Reid for years has blocked the facility.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who will continue being a pivotal lawmaker in energy reform talks, said earlier this month she hopes to secure floor time as quickly as possible for the package.

Murkowski’s legislation aims to boost efficiency, renewables and energy infrastructure while imposing deadlines for the Energy Department to make final decisions on applications to export natural gas.

House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) said he hoped to solidify his committee’s agenda in the coming week. Bishop has expressed interest in changing sentencing laws for certain crimes on federal land, a response to the recent armed standoff in Oregon sparked by stiff sentences for ranchers who started fires on federal land.

Bishop’s idea might not only have currency at this week’s retreat, but it may also be eyed as part of a broader bipartisan package on overhauling criminal sentencing guidelines that the White House and both parties want to pass this year.

Expanding a renewable tax credit that Congress passed last year as part of a deal to lift the ban on crude oil exports will also likely be on the agenda in Baltimore, along with talk of a broader code rewrite.

The five-year extension of the 30 percent investment tax credit only applies to solar energy, but there has been a push to extend it to other renewables, including combined heat and power systems, geothermal, small wind, and fuel cell technology, that currently qualify for the break.

House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) has signaled openness to doing so but noted that the current ITC actually does not expire until the end of 2016, so there’s no harm in those sources being left out until 2017. Democrats, including Reid, have endorsed the idea of expanding the ITC.

But Flores signaled not all of the GOP may be on board and said the tax structure for energy should be "agnostic as far as source," with no special preferences for renewable, nuclear or anything else.

"I don’t see how we can extend those any more than they’ve already been extended," he added.

Congressional Democrats, who will hold their own retreat in Baltimore at the end of the month, are already criticizing GOP leaders for not pursuing a more ambitious legislative agenda.

"Americans expect their Congress to put responsible policymaking ahead of partisanship and messaging," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said in a memo sent out Friday.

It cited several areas for potential bipartisan action, among them immigration, mental health and gun control, but made no mention of energy and environmental priorities for 2016.

Reporters Geof Koss and Hannah Hess contributed.