WASHINGTON -- Conservative Republicans, out of power in Congress for the first time in 12 years, will return to Baltimore tomorrow for a three-day retreat featuring pep talks by such movement lights as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey and former Sen. Phil Gramm.
On Friday, the members of the House Republican Study Committee will hear a pitch from former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has been courting conservative leaders in his run for the Republican presidential nomination.
A week after the House Republican Conference held its annual retreat on the Eastern Shore, 50 of its most conservative members are expected to hole up at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront for a slate of seminars organized and funded by the Heritage Foundation. Topics include "Conservatism in the New Political Environment," "Values Agenda in the 110th Congress" and "Foreign Policy Initiatives and Iraq."
The retreat comes amid a widening split between conservatives and moderates within the Republican Party, with each side blaming the other for election losses in November. Conservatives say the party lost touch with the voters when it lost touch with its basic tenets: keeping government small and spending limited.
"As conservatives, we must get back to basics and begin to thoughtfully communicate our vision and core principles," Rep. Jeb Hensarling, the Texas Republican who chairs the 90-member Republican Study Committee, said in a statement. "Gathering some of the best minds in the conservative movement together with conservative leaders in Congress provides an opportunity to strategize and develop a solid foundation."
Michael Franc, vice president of the Heritage Foundation for government relations, says the conservative movement is institutionally strong, with organizations such as Heritage, the National Review and others thriving. But he says adherents are frustrated that Republican control of Congress and the White House didn't lead to greater fiscal responsibility.
"There's more a sense of victory in the battle of ideas than there is in winning the legislative battle," he said. "Members who are coming to the retreat are part of the solution, not part of the problem. A lot of this is to help them understand the issues more completely."
Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Western Maryland said the main challenge facing the party now is "re-establishing our image.
"All the things that we once stood for, the American people believe the Democrats are better at than we are," he said. "Reducing the debt, providing for a good economy, safety and even national security."
Bartlett, who will miss the retreat to attend his sister's funeral, believes that those impressions are mistaken. He says they stem from public frustration with the war.
"That colors their thinking," he said. "If we're doing a bad job at that, maybe we're doing a bad job at everything. Guilt by association."
Romney will address the congressmen Friday. Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani also were invited to the retreat in Baltimore, where the same group met last year. Giuliani told organizers he had a scheduling conflict, they said. McCain did not respond.