House members to retreat in the name of bipartisan civility

House Republicans and Democrats-who just weeks ago assembled in separate, partisan retreats to plot their legislative and political battle plans for the year-plan to meet next Friday at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia to improve bipartisan relationships and the quality of life in the House.

"We don't have a whole lot of opportunities to socialize with members of the other party," said Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Texas. "You can't help, when you spend a little bit of time, you can't help but get a better relationship."

Stenholm and Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., are the co-chairmen of the House's fourth bipartisan civility retreat, which will bring House members and their families together for the three-day retreat. "It's really a blend of friendship building, collegiality, family time and some issues," LaHood said.

In an addition to past retreats, LaHood said the program this year would begin with a series of issue discussions Friday about how religion influences politics in the House and in U.S. foreign policy. Organizers have booked New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, Weekly Standard editor David Brooks and columnists Karen Armstrong and Georgie Anne Geyer. The program also includes Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Akbar Ahmed, chairman of the Islamic Studies Department at American University.

LaHood said the potential war in Iraq is a likely topic but has no set agenda. "The discussion will really go in the direction that members want to go," LaHood said.

The retreat, which is being funded by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, will also include sessions Saturday on how the House operates and Sunday on family life. Speakers include former Reps. Louis Stokes, D-Ohio, and Bill Frenzel, R-Minn., in addition to Mary Ann Fish, the wife of the late Rep. Hamilton Fish, R-N.Y., and Delores Beilenson, the wife of former Rep. Tony Beilenson, D-Calif.

LaHood and Stenholm said they hope that about 150 House members, in addition to spouses and children, will attend the program. The House civility retreat will be the fourth in eight years, and the second held at the Greenbrier resort. Many Republicans are already familiar with the resort, which was the site of the GOP congressional retreat just three weeks ago.

Stenholm, a leader in the Blue Dog Coalition of conservative and moderate Democrats, said GOP leaders have discouraged outreach to Blue Dogs or any Democrats on formulation of the fiscal 2004 budget resolution. He said the retreat gives lawmakers of both parties a chance to get around party discipline and a shot at bipartisanship.

"That's what the bipartisan retreat is about," Stenholm said, when asked whether Republicans have solicited Democratic views on the 2004 budget. "When you say leadership, no. But when you look at rank and file, yes."