WASHINGTON -- House Republicans are taking over a luxury resort on the Eastern Shore for a conference that will feature a speech by President Bush and closed-door strategy sessions about changing Congress' ethics and lobbying rules.
More than 160 of the 231 Republican representatives are expected to attend the event, which starts today, at the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Golf Resort, Spa and Marina in Cambridge. The annual gathering is a chance for House Republicans to discuss their legislative agenda and the fall elections with party leaders and pollsters.
The resort will be closed to the public until the event ends Saturday afternoon. With the exception of Bush's luncheon speech tomorrow, the meeting is also closed to the news media.
The Republican retreat is the first major event for new Majority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio, who cast himself as a reformer in last week's leadership election despite his own close relationship with lobbyists and his apparent reluctance to make sweeping changes in the way Congress conducts its business.
The extent of any changes to House ethics and lobbying rules will be among the major topics. Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois is pushing for a ban on gifts and privately funded travel, but some lawmakers, including Boehner, have questioned whether that would go too far.
The Republicans have been grappling with ethics issues in the aftermath of bribery charges against Republican ex-Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham of California, who resigned, and the continuing saga of disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The issue of ethics and Congress' dealings with lobbyists is on the formal agenda Saturday and is a likely topic of informal discussions throughout the 2 1/2 -day event.
Lawmakers are to get a refresher course on the rules from the chairman of the House Ethics Committee, which hasn't met in more than a year because of partisan squabbles over the panel's makeup and ground rules for investigations, according to Sean Spicer, a spokesman for the House Republican conference.
Also up for discussion will be proposals to change the rules governing interactions between lobbyists and congress members, and a possible ban on inserting hometown projects, called earmarks, into spending bills outside the normal legislative process.
Don Seymour Jr., a spokesman for Boehner, said the proposed changes would be a major part of the discussion at the event.
Republican leaders "will be using the planning retreat this weekend to help set the course for action not just on meaningful lobbying reform, but also reforms to the congressional earmarking process Jack Abramoff sought to exploit for personal gain at the expense of American taxpayers," Seymour said.
The Republican lawmakers -- many of whom are bringing spouses and children -- are required to pay their expenses at the retreat out of campaign or personal funds, Spicer said. In the past, the nonprofit Congressional Institute, which has a board stocked with Washington lobbyists, had paid for congressional staff to attend. This year, Spicer said, lawmakers have been told they must also pay for their staff, and outside lobbyists will not be involved in any of the activities.