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US Republicans gather with agenda - and Trump - on minds
[WASHINGTON] US Republican lawmakers headed to Philadelphia on Wednesday for their winter retreat to solidify policy goals and huddle with President Donald Trump, whose busy but provocative first week in office has sent jitters through some conservatives.
Mr Trump - whose arguments over inauguration crowd size, war of words with the media, and revival of his claim of massive voter fraud has led to concerns within his own party that he is straying off message right from the start - will address the gathering on Thursday in his first presidential foray outside the Washington region.
The meeting will feature another high-profile guest: British Prime Minister Theresa May, who will become the first foreign leader to meet Trump since his inauguration.
Mrs May, who addresses the Republican retreat shortly after Mr Trump's joint session, will almost certainly discuss the prospects of a key post-Brexit trade deal with the United States.
Trade is likely to feature highly at the retreat in a downtown Philadelphia hotel.
Mr Trump upended global trade policy - and ran counter to his party's decades-old positioning in support of free trade pacts - on Monday when he fulfilled a campaign promise to torpedo a sweeping Pacific trade deal with 12 nations including Australia, Canada, Japan and Vietnam.
As the party aims to set its political course for 2017 and beyond, the Republican members of the Senate and House of Representatives will also discuss their efforts to repeal and replace former president Barack Obama's health care law.
The likelihood of such action has swelled since Mr Trump won last November's election, and Trump has described acting on Obamacare as a top early priority.
But concern has grown within the party over how to accomplish such a repeal of the health reforms along with a simultaneous replacement of the law so as not to leave millions of people uninsured.
Other issues on the "jam-packed agenda" will be tax reform and national defense, House Republican Conference chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers said as the retreat kicked off, describing the gathering as "a moment to think big and advance conservative policies."
But the retreat comes as Mr Trump continues his unorthodox, campaign-style of communication, including a series of petty tweets and a wild accusation that three to five million people voted illegally in the November election.
"I haven't seen any evidence to that effect," Senate Republican John Thune said at the retreat, echoing a similar message put forward by House Speaker Paul Ryan.
Mr Trump has clearly triggered anxiety within his own party by peddling such largely debunked claims, uttering falsehoods about crowd size at the inauguration, and making a campaign-style speech before a memorial to fallen CIA officers.
"I was disappointed in that," House Republican Adam Kinzinger told CNN on Monday about Mr Trump's comments at the CIA, where he lashed out at the media and spoke of his Time magazine covers instead of focusing on loftier issues.
"It's taking the message you want as a new president and derailing it," Mr Kinzinger said, adding there was a "big danger" of losing support among Republicans if he continued challenging established fact.
Adding to the sense of unease, Mr Trump threatened to "send in the feds" to Chicago if America's third-largest city could not rein in its gun violence, a move that would appear to directly counter Republican wariness of federal intervention in local matters.
But it remained unclear whether any Republican lawmakers will feel comfortable enough to urge Mr Trump to strike a more measured and presidential tone, especially given his popularity with base Republican voters.
For many Republicans, it is their first opportunity to serve in Congress under a Republican president.