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NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — For the past eight years, the Republican Congress served as conservatives’ bulwark against a Democratic president and its members were central figures at this major annual conservative confab. But now that there's a new Republican administration in town, those congressional leaders have taken a back seat to a White House that is eager to reach its conservative base.
The Conservative Political Action Conference has brought together movement leaders, grassroots activists and young conservatives for over 40 years. Once a bastion of conservative insurgents, the annual gathering has become mainstreamed with the GOP establishment in recent years and has become an accessible place for members of Congress to connect with this key voting bloc.
This year, fewer than one dozen members of Congress — none from the House or Senate leadership ranks — will speak at the event. It's a stark change from rosters in previous years that included about three dozen Republican House and Senate lawmakers, including figures like House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Matt Schlapp, executive director of CPAC, said that fewer congressional members are in attendance in part because of scheduling but also because the programming is “intentional.”
“We won the White House and there’s only so many slots. There’s a finite amount of speakers and a finite amount of time,” Schlapp told NBC News. “We have a White House that wants to be here.”
President Donald Trump's appearance on Friday will be the first time a president has spoken at CPAC during his first year in office since Ronald Reagan spoke in 1981. Many of Trump’s senior advisers and cabinet secretaries were also on the bill, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Environmental and Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, top adviser Steve Bannon and senior adviser Kellyanne Conway.
“CPAC has to respond to the moment and the moment right now is, ‘Oh my Lord, we elected a president,' and he’s populating it with these great people who they respect in the agencies and they want to know what they’re going to do,” Schlapp said.
Vice President Mike Pence tapped into that sentiment on Thursday night, telling the audience: 'This is our time."
Another factor impacting congressional attendance is the schedule — Congress is currently on their annual one-week Presidents’ Day recess where many members go home to their districts. In a non-election year three years away from the next presidential election, the conference wasn't a priority.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a repeat CPAC speaker, decided to skip the event. A Senate aide said he declined an invitation because he wasn't in Washington this week. Meanwhile, Paul Ryan’s spokesperson said the speaker was on political travel this week and couldn’t make the event.
Sen. Ted Cruz. R-Texas, the only senator on this year’s program, spoke at CPAC Thursday morning, as he has done for the past three years. He took the stage to thunderous applause from the socially conservative group that was much more likely to support Cruz than Trump in a Republican nomination.
But Cruz's popularity here doesn't translate to support of Congress, which has a national approval rating in the teens. Criticism of Congress is evident here, mostly among the speakers.
“Let’s all give Congress a quick kick in the seat of the pants,” said former Sen. Jim DeMint, who now leads the conservative Heritage Foundation. “Let’s tell them to get to work and keep their promises.”
Even Cruz, who is capable of understanding his audience, put pressure on his colleagues.
“Let’s keep our promises. Let’s do what we said we would do,” he said during a conversation with conservative radio host Mark Levin.
CPAC's parent organization, the American Conservative Union, has long attempted to pressure Congress into a conservative agenda by scoring votes and activating its members.
Schlapp said he has this to say for Congress: “My message to my friends in congress is ... they’ve got to listen to the anxiety out there an across the country.”