Updated at 9:40 a.m.
White Sulphur Springs, W. Va. — A tragic train wreck almost put an early end to this year’s GOP policy retreat as lawmakers grappled with whether or not to carry on after an Amtrak train carrying them to the Greenbrier Resort collided with a garbage truck and resulted in at least one fatality.
“Personally I gave it a lot of thought. I was very conflicted. Every ounce of me said: Get home to Texas as fast as you can,” said Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, a physician who helped treat the injured on the accident scene. No one onboard the train suffered any major injuries. The White House ultimately informed lawmakers the president and vice president still planned to attend. “That put it in a little bit of different context for me,” said Burgess.
Republicans are gathered at the storied Greenbrier Resort — home to a Cold War-era bunker once meant to house Congress in the event of a nuclear attack — to plot the party’s legislative agenda for 2018 and strategize for what could be a bruising midterm election.
For Republicans this year, it may be easier to look back than to plan for what’s to come. In a Wednesday night speech, Vice President Mike Pence lauded Republicans for 2017, which he called “the most accomplished year for the conservative agenda in 30 years.” Pence touted the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, confirmation of a record number of conservative lower-court judges in the Trump administration’s first year, regulation rollbacks and a $1 trillion tax cut package.
President Trump’s State of the Union address provided a familiar list of proposals, but lawmakers haven’t rallied around an agenda in the same way Republicans did in 2017 on health care and taxes.
Much of what President Trump outlined Tuesday night — paid family leave, overhauling the criminal justice system’s sentencing laws and reducing the cost of prescription drugs — are proposals loaded with opposition from the conservative wing of the party and are unlikely to find GOP champions on Capitol Hill.
Even Trump’s immigration proposal has received a lukewarm reception from Republicans in Congress because it includes a path to citizenship for an estimated 1.8 million people residing in the U.S. illegally.
On Thursday morning, Senate GOP Conference Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., told reporters that the path forward might need to be a paired down immigration bill that only includes a legislative fix to the Obama-era Deferred Action for Child Arrivals program and money for border security. That proposal would eliminate any changes to legal immigration sought by conservatives. “That may be the best we can hope for,” Thune said.
House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, R-N.C., called a paired down bill a “non-starter” in the House. “Sen. Thune represents a state that is 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.”
Infrastructure is a popular proposal with theoretical bipartisan support, but there’s no consensus on the hardest part — how to pay for it. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao was scheduled to meet with Republicans Thursday to discuss strategy.
The president appears to have walked away from the GOP’s failed efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. The GOP tax bill zeroed out the tax penalty designed to compel individuals to buy health insurance, and that policy victory seems to have satisfied Trump. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has likewise said he’s ready to move on from the health care fight after the Alabama Senate special election loss narrowed his majority to a razor-thin 51-49 margin.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., voiced hopes of overhauling social welfare programs in 2018, but he’s been given little rhetorical backup from the White House or the Senate. The president made no mention of overhauling entitlement programs in his Tuesday address.
The three-day retreat is designed to help lawmakers figure out what, exactly, they can agree on and when they plan to act on it. The legislative pipeline so far this year has been clogged by the impasses over immigration legislation to determine the fate of those in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program, and a budget deal necessary for Congress to pass this fiscal year’s spending bills, which are already four months overdue. The Treasury Department threw Congress another curveball this week after it informed lawmakers the deadline has been moved up to vote to raise the debt ceiling –the nation’s borrowing authority — to Feb. 28.
Election-year politics are already at the forefront of lawmakers’ minds here. Another prominent Republican, South Carolina’s Trey Gowdy, announced his decision to retire this year. He is the 34th Republican and ninth committee chairman to retire ahead of the 2018 midterm elections where Republicans are facing historically brutal headwinds with their House majority at stake. Pence assured Republicans that he and the president would hit the campaign trail hard for down-ballot Republicans. He also said the party under Trump has already defied the “conventional wisdom” of elections and forecast that Republicans majorities would hold come November.
Pence also took advantage of the location to launch an attack on West Virginia’s Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who is up for re-election in a state Trump won by more than 40 percentage points.
“When it came to cutting your taxes, Joe voted no,” Pence told employees at an event at a local manufacturing company, adding that Manchin “has voted no time and again on the policies that West Virginia needs.” Pence continued that attack in a series of tweets with the hashtag #JoeVotedNo highlighting Manchin’s opposition to Trump’s priorities, including GOP efforts to cut funds for Planned Parenthood.
Manchin responded in a statement: “The vice president’s comments are exactly why Washington Sucks.”
Congressional Democrats likewise hold annual policy retreats, but House and Senate Democrats meet separately. House Democrats next week will head to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Vice President Joe Biden is expected to give the keynote address.