House Republicans to hear Obama in Baltimore

WASHINGTON — - House Republicans will gather at an Inner Harbor hotel this evening for an annual retreat that will feature an appearance Friday by President Barack Obama.

The president's midday speech, to be followed by a private question-and-answer session with the Republican lawmakers, is an election-year attempt at bipartisan outreach to a group that has been extremely hostile to his agenda.

Obama met with House Republicans at the Capitol last January, shortly after taking office, but failed to gain any of their votes for his $787 billion stimulus plan a few days later.

The Republican retreat, which runs through Saturday, is designed to help develop the party's strategic plan for the midterm elections. Independent campaign analysts are forecasting significant Republican gains this November, with some predicting at least an outside chance for Republicans to knock Democrats from the majority.

Republicans "look forward to sharing with the president our better solutions for getting this economy moving again [and] putting our fiscal house in order. Our proposals for health care reform [and] energy will all be part of what we are describing as a conversation between the president and House Republicans," Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, chairman of the House Republican conference, said Wednesday.

The meeting, at the Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel, is being underwritten by the Congressional Institute, a nonprofit organization that has sponsored similar Republican retreats since the late 1980s.

The organization's involvement has attracted criticism in the past because members of its board of directors, including lobbyists who make $25,000 contributions to support the group's activities, are allowed to mingle with lawmakers at a private reception and dinner during the retreat.

Mark Strand, the institute's president, said his organization, which also sponsors other programs designed to assist members of Congress, has complied "with all legal and ethical obligations" in connection with the retreat. Allowing donors to speak with Congress members at the event is a "commonplace" courtesy, he said.

A scaled-back Democratic retreat, held recently in Washington rather than at an out-of-town hotel, was underwritten by taxpayer funds through the regular appropriation that Congress provides to House caucuses of both major parties. As with the Republican retreat, Democratic lawmakers paid their own travel expenses and are permitted to use campaign funds for that purpose, according to a Democratic spokeswoman, who also said that no donors or lobbyists were given access to House Democrats at the event.

Besides Obama, scheduled speakers at the Baltimore retreat include former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, newly elected Republican Gov. Robert McDonnell of Virginia and former House Republican Leader Dick Armey, who chairs a conservative group that has aggressively opposed Obama's agenda. Retired football coach Lou Holtz, a longtime Republican activist who gave a pep talk at the 2007 retreat on Maryland's Eastern Shore, is the Friday night dinner speaker.

Gingrich, whose former aides are active in the Congressional Institute, also addressed last winter's retreat, held at the Homestead in Hot Springs, Va. Other speakers there included 2012 Republican presidential possibilities Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty, plus newly elected Republican National Chairman Michael S. Steele. The former Maryland lieutenant governor won't be addressing the House retreat in his home state this week; he is in Hawaii for the annual winter meeting of the Republican National Committee.

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