GOP lawmakers vent frustrations at meeting

House Republicans raised a litany of concerns about their leadership and agenda yesterday in a four-hour meeting in the Library of Congress.

The so-called Advance meeting was set up as a chance for lawmakers to discuss their aims for next year — immigration, energy costs and unease about the economy were highlighted — but it also became an outlet for frustration with the leadership.

Only Rep. Charlie Bass (R-N.H.) called explicitly for leadership elections in January, according to members who were there. But the undercurrent of the whole event was one of uncertainty about their temporary leadership and the legislative agenda running up to the midterm elections next November.

The mini-retreat came at a difficult time for GOP lawmakers. Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) was forced to step aside at least temporarily as majority leader in late September after his indictment by a Texas grand jury. Conservative members are demanding further cuts to offset recovery costs in the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast region, and leadership has readied a tough series of budget votes to finish out the year.

During the same stretch, the White House suffered heavy criticism for its response to Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans, Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers withdrew in the face of conservative opposition and Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, resigned after being indicted on allegations he obstructed a federal probe into the leaking of a covert CIA operative’s identity.

GOP leaders remained largely silent throughout yesterday’s meeting. House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Conference Chairman Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio) were the only two who spoke.

Hastert’s remarks were wide-ranging, according to GOP sources afterward. He told the conference, “Leadership is easy when times are good. Frankly, you don’t need much. But it is hard when times are tough. You were elected to do what is right when times are tough, so I ask you to step up and help us lead.”

He also reminded members that it is better to be in the majority because they are able to set the agenda, a refrain echoed by other members. The Speaker pointed a critical finger at the Democratic minority, saying, “We can act, when the other side can only talk and complain.”

Three outside speakers also made presentations. Former Rep. Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.), a lobbyist with Akin Gump, addressed the group first. Then Republican pollster Glen Bolger presented recent polling data that suggest the Republicans still have strong support from their conservative base voters.

That prompted some members from both ends of the ideological spectrum to question the political wisdom of pushing a package of spending and tax cuts through the House if the Senate is preparing to pass a smaller package of its own.

Republican strategist Frank Luntz talked about the party’s election message. In the face of low poll numbers, they are going to have to answer questions about the “bridge to nowhere,” Rep. Don Young’s (R-Alaska) $200 million bridge connecting the town of Ketchikan, Alaska, with Gravina Island, population 50.

Outside the retreat, members taped brief messages to the conference about the benefits of being in the majority that would be replayed during the Republican retreat in January.

“The best thing about being in the majority is we get to rule,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) during one of the tapings. “The worst thing about the majority is that we have to rule.”

Afterward, reactions to the meeting were mixed, but most agreed it was a good opportunity to have an open discussion with their leaders.

“I think they made a very good decision. … It’s an important thing for leadership to do,” Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said afterward. “It was really good.”

Others were less satisfied with the long, wide-ranging discussion in which, Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said, “50 to 60” members spoke.

“You just beg for someone to stand up and say we’re going in this direction,” said one member who attended. “It was wasted time.”

Yesterday’s Advance came in advance of a conference to discuss budget reconciliation — both spending and taxes — and was meant to prepare leaders for their bicameral retreat next month.

In a moment of levity, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) presented Hastert with an 18-inch broom handle to “prop up” any Republicans who were wavering on the budget.

It was a reference to an aphorism from her native western North Carolina: “If they don’t have the backbone to do the right thing, then you need to get a broom handle to prop ’em up.”