Democrats Head Into Retreat Battle-Worn but Emboldened

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

It might seem as if House Democrats gathering in Eastern Maryland on Wednesday night for their annual "issues conference" are literally retreating.  

After all, the party faces a steep climb to win the 17 seats needed this fall to reclaim control of the chamber and several senior lawmakers are heading for the exits.  

But on the eve of their drive to the Hyatt Regency in Cambridge, Md., — the same spa and resort that was the host of the House Republicans’ issues conference two weeks earlier — House Democrats said that spending time together off campus would do the caucus good. And the Democrats will retreat feeling emboldened, perhaps more so this year than the last.  

“We have, as a caucus, been staggered by retirements, and that generated or ignited all kinds of rumors inside our caucus and across the country, for that matter,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II of Missouri. “It’ll be good to see the entire caucus leadership … at least, I think, for a lot of the people to say, ‘Oh, OK, we’re on the same page.’”  

Legislative priorities that are typically non-starters for the minority party suddenly have another chance at life given President Barack Obama’s pledge to use his “phone and pen” to enact via executive order some progressive policies — ones that Republicans won’t take up.  

“My expectation is we’ll talk about income inequality and how we can work with the president to bridge the gap,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, who added that he also hoped to discuss how to mobilize constituents, including progressive lobbyists and outside advocacy groups, to spur policy on Capitol Hill.  

And the two-and-a-half-day gathering will also kick off roughly 24 hours after the latest GOP struggle to keep the rank and file in line, this time over a bill to raise the debt limit.  

“I think what’s playing out on the floor right now is an example of that,” Rep. Robert E. Andrews of New Jersey said on Tuesday. “This, by my count, is the fifth time since the Republicans took the majority that on a major issue we have taken the unified position. They have essentially yielded to our position.”  

Andrews, the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee co-chairman who is retiring at the end of the month amid an ethics investigation, won’t be making it to the retreat this year.  

The House Democratic Caucus might be able to poke at the Republicans' troubles, but it hasn’t been all roses for their party since the last retreat. The caucus experienced significant rancor in the rank and file over the rocky rollout of the Affordable Care Act, and many Democrats have acknowledged over the past few weeks that their chances of winning back the House in November are exceedingly slim.  

They also are losing a handful of senior members, causing colleagues to worry about the loss of institutional knowledge — and speculate about what it means for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s staying power, not to mention a handful of potentially nasty fights over who will fill powerful ranking member committee slots.  

And while they said the retreat is always more about policy than about politics, Democrats appeared eager to huddle over a range of issues to better position themselves politically in the months ahead.  

The theme of this year’s retreat is being described officially as “Strengthening Ladders of Opportunity.” According to that official description, conversations in Cambridge will “build upon the work that Members of the House Democratic Caucus have been doing to help create jobs, grow the middle class and strengthen the ladders of opportunity for all Americans.”  

Symposiums and seminars throughout Wednesday, Thursday and Friday are expected to focus on coalescing Democrats around key issues that make up their 2014 policy platform, such as: “raising the minimum wage to a living wage [and] renewing unemployment insurance,” plus “addressing the economic challenges facing women and working families; ensuring access to affordable health care; [and] finally fixing our badly broken immigration system.”  

Speakers on tap include Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., plus Democratic Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley — who may run for president in 2016 — along with World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and Clinton administration economist Joseph Stiglitz.  

That's all, of course, unless the impending snowstorm intervenes.  

With blankets of snow forecast for the region on Wednesday night and throughout Thursday, House Democrats and aides are wondering whether travel arrangements for their special guests might be thwarted.