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House Democrats Seeking Answers

Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday told the U.S. Conference of Mayors that Democrats heard voters’ message.

With the rubble of the Democratic collapse in Massachusetts still smoldering Wednesday, House Democratic leaders paused to let the smoke clear and assess the damage to their already-weakened political prospects.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), frequently a blunt instrument hammering her Members to move an enormously ambitious agenda, spent the day in listening mode with key constituencies, gathering reactions to the Bay State blowout and soliciting ideas from her rank and file about how to reconnect with an electorate that has turned aggressively against incumbents.

The talks centered on the path forward for health care reform, which just days ago seemed a sure bet for a landmark legislative achievement but has been thrown into doubt by Republican Scott Brown’s come-from-behind victory that will end Senate Democrats’ filibuster-proof majority. But Pelosi also sought input on a range of other items, from deficit reduction to ethics reform.

And she and her lieutenants sought to calm fears — on the rise before Tuesday and spiking in its wake — of an impending wave election sweeping Democrats from power. In the series of Wednesday huddles, the top House Democrat sought to reassure Members that certain developments fueling public anger — like a tax on high-cost health care plans opposed by labor unions and a carve-out deal that Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) engineered for his state — were specific to the Senate bill and would be cleaned up in whatever final product lawmakers negotiate.

House Democratic strategists made the case to lawmakers that the party is prepared for a tough election. “House Democrats have been preparing since day one last year for what we knew historically would be a very challenging election cycle,” according to a memo, obtained by Roll Call, that went out to Democratic Members on Tuesday night, immediately after Brown’s victory.

Democratic strategists expected a few more House retirements before votes were cast in the Bay State and now are doing their best to get out in front of their Members who are sitting on the retirement fence and could be discouraged by Tuesday’s results.

Compounding personal considerations about tough re-election fights is the worry — remote but not impossible — that House Democrats could lose their majority. “There is a concern on that,” Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) said. “And I think you’re foolish if you don’t think about it. ... If you’re not listening to it, shame on you, you’ll find out.”

The Speaker broadcast her intent to absorb the lessons of the Massachusetts balloting in a Wednesday morning speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors. “Heeding the particular concerns of the voters of Massachusetts, we heard, we will heed, we will move forward with their considerations in mind. But we will move forward,” Pelosi said.

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