House Republicans convened their annual retreat an hour north of Washington at the Waterfront Marriott in Baltimore Friday morning.
And so did the nonprofit association, EDUCAUSE.
EDUCAUSE bills itself as an organization "whose mission is to advance higher education by promoting the intelligent use of information technology."
And a rookie Capitol Hill reporter seeking out discussions with Republicans on raising the debt limit or repealing the health care reform law may have instead stumbled into sessions on the use of information technology in higher education.
EDUCAUSE billed a 9:30 am session in Salon A as "Inventive and Effective IT Solutions." And Congressional scribes wanting to hear thoughts on "New IT Managers" in room Essex B would have to look elsewhere because EDUCAUSE organizers switched rooms.
During one EDUCAUSE pow-wow, an unidentified female speaker implored her audience to "be seen as a strategic partner" between the university president's audience, the board of trustees and faculty members.
"We made efforts to impress the (university) president and trustees about rolling out wireless throughout the entire campus," she said.
Yes. But what about the debt limit? And health care reform? And will the debate be more civilized after the shootings last week that nearly killed Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ)? That's what reporters wanted to know.
Those were all closed discussions down on the third floor of the hotel. There, House Republicans huddled behind closed doors and listened to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and Gov. Haley Barbour (R). Meantime, reporters covering the GOP retreat strolled among attendees of the EDUCAUSE conference up on the fourth floor.
Officers from the U.S. Capitol Police and the City of Baltimore roamed the halls and elevators. Some dressed in plainclothes with spiral wires snaking from their earpieces.. Others were decked out in full combat mode, sporting black fatigues, bullet proof flak jackets and grenade packs.
"It's hard for me to tell if it's a notch higher," said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) of security at the GOP retreat. "Of course, the last time, we were here with the president."
Officers stood guard in front of the elevator banks to make sure no one made it onto the third floor. A "down" escalator running from the fourth floor to the third was sanctioned off by a velvet rope line.
"Only authorized personnel are allowed to utilize this escalator," admonished a sign.
There was some good-natured chuckling from reporters about being cordoned off from the lawmakers.
"There's a reason they call it a ‘retreat,'" quipped one journalist.
A sign instructed reporters that the "Press Room is in Falkland."
Someone guffawed that they meant the Falkland Islands.
To be fair, House GOP press secretaries made a concerted effort to escort various members upstairs to chat with reporters starving for information about what was going on downstairs. And that seemed to satiate the news appetite of journalists who made the trek.
House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam (R-IL) and Reps. Allen West (R-FL), Scott Garrett (R-NJ), Tom Rooney (R-FL) and Candice Miller (R-MI) all patronized the fourth floor to grant quote-starved reporters afew news calories.
Reporters queried Scott Garrett if they should alter the title of the "Job-Killing Health Care Law" Act in the wake of the violence in Arizona.
"I think the American public knows what we're talking about," Garrett said, adding he didn't engage "in any overheated rhetoric on the health care bill."
Tom Rooney talked to reporters about the challenges of convincing a skeptical public that the new Republican majority can make an impact. The Florida Republican relayed a tale from a tele-town hall he conducted on Thursday.
"I had a caller say yeah, Washington's not going to change," Rooney said. "That's so frustrating."
Around 10:30, Kevin McCarthy and Peter Roskam found their way to the fourth floor of the hotel. The press jumped to attention, excited to have top-line leadership types in their midst. They peppered McCarthy about a proposal floated by Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) to mix up the seating at President Obama's State of the Union speech later this month. Traditionally lawmakers divide themselves by party in the House chamber for the speech. Instead, Udall wants lawmakers to sit all over the chamber, regardless of party.
"I like the idea," chimed McCarthy. "In fact, (House Minority Whip) Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and I try to talk quite often."
Around lunchtime, some reporters scouted out the first floor for any lawmakers.
A few stumbled upon Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE) with his high school age son Nolan. Terry contrasted this year's retreat with others he's attended.
"The last couple have been ‘Can we get back to the majority?' and rah-rah," Terry said. He added that this retreat was more policy focused. Terry said economists like Arthur Laffer focused on debt percentages compared to the Growth Domestic Product.
"I had flashbacks to my college econ class," Terry said, suggesting that of the conversations were "meaty" but "dry."
"That's called jerky," Terry said. "I'll bring you some from Nebraska."
Still, despite the policy discussions, Republicans murmured in the hallways about security. Terry said at least one lawmaker wondered aloud if constituents would be willing to attend town meetings after the slaughter in Arizona.
"If you're the mother of a nine-year-old, do you want to go?" asked Terry.
Reporters finally scored their best news fix of the day when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) accompanied Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) and Haley Barbour to a press conference.
Even though this was a meeting of House Republicans, Cantor sought to remind Americans that the scope of their power was limited.
"We as Republicans do not control this federal government. The other party does," Cantor said.
Republicans held the forum just blocks from Baltimore's storied Little Italy neighborhood, the childhood home of the person they just unseated as House Speaker, current Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Four years ago, the city of Baltimore renamed part of Albemarle St. in honor of one of its favorite daughters. The street now bears the name Via Nancy D'Alessandro, her maiden name.
I asked one lawmaker if he had taken an excursion over there.
"Is that near here?" he asked. "I'm sure if there's enough interest, we'll do a field trip."
So far, no trips were scheduled.