Republicans in the House of Representatives, still reeling from last month's fight over extending a popular payroll tax cut, will converge on Baltimore Thursday for a retreat intended to map out a new political strategy that can bind their unwieldy caucus together.
The three-day event, which will take place largely behind closed doors at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront hotel, will bring to the Inner Harbor hundreds of federal lawmakers from across the country, their staffs and other Republican luminaries.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who chose last year not to seek the GOP presidential nomination, is expected to address the group Friday.
The retreat comes at a particularly critical moment for the GOP, which is in the midst of selecting a presidential nominee to face President Barack Obama in November. Congress has been battered by record-low approval ratings, Obama has been aggressively campaigning for re-election by attacking inaction on Capitol Hill, and some conservatives have expressed frustration with the pace of change.
"We represent a very broad spectrum of interests," said Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, the 10-term lawmaker from Frederick County and one of two Republicans who represent the state in Congress. "I think the average American is pleased Republicans seem to be discussing among themselves the best way to achieve what everyone wants, and that is a better economy."
Rep. Andy Harris of Baltimore County, Maryland's other Republican in Washington, played down the divisions.
"Far more unites us than divides the caucus," said Harris, a first-term lawmaker who represents the Eastern Shore as well as portions of Anne Arundel, Harford and Baltimore counties. "The key is showing the American public that sending a Republican majority to Congress last year did make a difference in our ability to slow the growth of the federal government."
Republican officials said there are no plans for the kinds of excursions that took place last year, including a trip to Fort McHenry. It's not clear how much opportunity lawmakers will have to leave the hotel.
But the retreat will not be entirely focused on strategy. Bartlett said he, Harris and former Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. will host a fundraiser for House Speaker John A. Boehner during the conference.
The retreat comes a month after Republicans were criticized by some in their ranks for agreeing to a short-term extension of a payroll tax cut that had been set to expire at the end of last year. GOP House leaders initially took a stand in favor of a yearlong extension, but then agreed to a two-month extension.
Now, the issue must be renegotiated next month in the middle of the Republican presidential race. An extension of long-term unemployment benefits and maintaining the current payment rates for doctors who care for Medicare patients are also hitched to the legislation.
Asked Wednesday about the reversal, Boehner said: "We were picking the right fight, but I would argue we probably picked it at the wrong time."
Republicans have held their annual retreat in Baltimore since 2010. Obama spoke to the caucus that year in a live, televised event that came in the midst of the health care debate.
Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said in a statement that the Democratic mayor is pleased to welcome the group of Republicans to town "to enjoy our history, culture and neighborhoods."
But O'Doherty was quick to get in a plug for his own party's leader.
"Hopefully, by spending more time in one [of] America's great cities, they will gain a better understanding of how President Obama's jobs proposals … would benefit the American people and the economy," he said.
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