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The GOP's sweet retreat?

The GOP's sweet retreat?
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Things may be pretty sweet for House and Senate Republicans at their annual retreat.

The new majority party will gather next Wednesday, Thursday and Friday in Hershey, Pa., to craft strategy for the GOP-controlled Congress and hear from boldface names like former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and comedian Jay Leno. 

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The retreat is being held at the Hershey Lodge, owned by the chocolate company that also operates nearby amusement attraction Hersheypark. 

While there's sure to be plenty of the eponymous chocolate around, there’s also something for everyone, it seems.

If they want, lawmakers can learn the ancient art of falconry for just $65. The hotel offers demonstrations in using birds of prey to hunt with a “master falconer.”

Though retreats are common practice on both sides of the aisle, the resort setting for the event means that GOP majority may have to shake off a perception that has dogged past retreats that the event is an indulgence.

The event is organized by the Congressional Institute, a non-profit that “sponsors major conferences for the benefit of Members of the U.S. Congress as well as a number of smaller gatherings, all devoted to an examination of important policy issues and strategic planning,” according to its website.

Lawmakers pay their own way, either out-of-pocket or by drawing on campaign funds. The two-night trip will cost them just over $700, including lodging, meals and transportation by bus to the resort, which is just under three hours from D.C. 

The Institute, a non-profit that is supported by corporate donors, is paying for the expenses of congressional staff members who will attend. 

Those same donors will gain a certain measure of access to lawmakers during the event. Their representatives are allowed to attend a dinner and reception during one night of the retreat. This arrangement has led some to criticize past trips for giving lobbyists an opportunity to advance their relationships with lawmakers.

Lawmakers also have to fight the perception the event is akin to a vacation.

An organizer of the retreat said there would not be time for lawmakers to avail themselves of the hotel’s somewhat unusual recreational options. 

“It’s a very full schedule,” said Mark Strand, president of the Congressional Institute. “The whole idea is to get them away from Washington, get to a place where they're relaxed with their colleagues — many of them will bring their spouses and children. And get to a place where they can just talk to each other as human beings.”

Congressional staff members who attend are also required to sign affidavits saying they attended every session, Strand said.

Though the events — because of their location a stones-throw away from a spa that offers a “chocolate spa prescription facial” — can seem indulgent to outsiders, Strand said that they are an important way of breaking congressional gridlock.

“I think that any organization, whether it’s your local PTA or whether it’s a company, benefits from strategic planning,” he said.

The retreat, Strand said, takes members away from the “tyranny” of peripatetic Washington days where lawmakers are distracted from the bigger picture by the day’s news.

But previous trips have still been met with some skepticism. Even in 2007, before the financial crisis, Democratic lawmakers dubbed their trip to the Kingsmill Resort & Spa in Williamsburg, Va. an “issues conference” because “retreat” sounded too leisurely.

The GOP lawmakers aren’t spending their nights at the ritziest hotel in Hershey. That would be the Hotel Hershey, which has nightly rates starting at $259 and a terraced exterior that evokes Spanish and Mediterranean architecture. Room rates at the Lodge start at a more modest $149 per night.

"Hershey was chosen because it’s one of the locations that can accommodate so many Members (and since it’s a joint retreat, we’ll have even more there – Senators and Members of Congress!)," an aide to Rep. Cathy McMorris RodgersCathy McMorris RodgersMesser eyes challenging Donnelly for Indiana Senate seat Trump's Cabinet: What jobs are left to fill The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (R-Wash.), who led the planning for the retreat, wrote in an email.

It is the first retreat to include both representatives and Senators in ten years, the aide said.

The hotel also had to have room for staff members and Capitol Police officers who provide security during the event.

The Lodge is only a 10 minute drive away from a Hershey-run country club, but members tempted to play hooky for a round of golf could find their plans stymied by weather. Only one of the club’s two courses is open at the moment, and is not open for play when snow is on the ground.

“They won’t be going golfing,” Strand said. “Certainly, it’s one of the advantages to holding it in January.”