Once intent on overhauling the federal government, nearly 20 conservative House Republicans gathered near Chicago this week to begin crafting a much more incremental legislative agenda focusing on modest measures that stand a chance of becoming law.
Participants said it was part of an effort to get a jump on key legislative issues before the presidential race captures the public's attention.
Among the topics discussed were a series of small tax cuts, including more deductions for health care expenses; creating private retirement accounts from Social Security surpluses; promoting a ballistic missile defense; and containing spending through the appropriations process.
"The thought was we ought not be doing legislative reforms that require huge cooperation, but rather looking at more specific, smaller pieces of legislation that address specific problems," said one of the meeting's organizers, Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.). "The question is what is doable, where is the common ground in the current climate between the Congress and the president?"
Rep. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.) added, "There's a limited number of months where we can be effective in reaching out to the public and moving legislation."
The session marked somewhat of a strategic shift for conservatives, several of whom have made trouble for the GOP leadership in the past by directly challenging some of its initiatives.
Several of the lawmakers who attended said they had briefed the leadership on their discussions and hoped to incorporate their proposals into the party's upcoming agenda; House Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts (Okla.) also addressed the group, which met at an airport hotel near Chicago.
"It's no revolution and it's not a rebellion," said Rep. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who helped arrange the retreat and will retire this year after he completes his third term. "It's nothing like that."
Still, Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), another lawmaker retiring because of self-imposed term limits, said "there's a real sense of urgency" among Republicans who are facing their last year and those who fear the GOP may lose the majority next year.
"There is the question of the two-minute warning bells having gone off," Sanford said. "You feel behind and running out of time."
Shadegg added, "Members that were there felt we should have an agenda, not necessarily a conservative agenda, but an agenda of achievable accomplishments."
With only a slim GOP majority in the House, lawmakers said, a detailed laundry list from conservatives could spur House GOP leaders to act quickly in order to address rank-and-file members' concerns.
"That question will be answered by the quality of ideas we come forward with," Sanford said. "If the ideas have merit, it will be a pressure point. I won't say the pressure point, but a pressure point."