White House spokesman Robert Gibbs hit a nerve among Congressional Democrats this week when he suggested that they could lose control of the House this year. But many Members say the dustup is just more proof of the White House taking them for granted in a year that will serve as a referendum on President Barack Obama.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi made it clear to her Caucus on Tuesday night that she did not appreciate Gibbs' remarks on a Sunday talk show that there are enough House seats in play to allow for a GOP takeover in November. The California Democrat called Gibbs' comments "politically inept" and, according to a Democrat in the room, blasted the White House press secretary for weighing in on her turf when she doesn't even "know who this guy is. I've never met him before. And he's saying that we're going to lose the House."
House Democratic leaders have since tried to downplay the scuffle and move on — Pelosi urged her Caucus to move past the "friendly fire" from the White House — but many rank-and-file Members are still stinging. They say Gibbs' comments are just the latest in a string of White House missteps that have the potential to cost House Democrats political ground.
A Democratic lawmaker with ties to leadership said Members' frustrations with the White House stem from a feeling that the House has been put in the backseat in the overall legislative process.
"The fact that the Senate always has to get their 60 votes and we get stuck with take-it-or-leave-it propositions at the end of the day" has left lawmakers feeling that Obama "isn't aggressive enough in that fight" for passing broader measures, this Democrat said.
With many Members facing difficult re-election bids this cycle, House Democrats have grown increasingly wary of casting tough votes. Many are still feeling the hangover from having to tackle health care reform, climate change and jobs packages, to name a few, only to watch them either stall or be watered down in the Senate and then get the stamp of approval by the White House.
On top of that, House Democrats are still frustrated with Obama for spending the better part of the year pushing a message that Washington is broken — a practice that drew fire from Democratic leaders, who said it only served to hurt the president's own party since it controls Congress.
"The point we made very clearly and emphatically to him was, Who do you think people are going to associate with Washington? The guys who are in charge. You, Mr. President, are Washington, whether you like it or not,'" the lawmaker said.
Vulnerable House Democrats said Gibbs' comments did little to help them in an already challenging year.
Gibbs' remarks "show a callous disregard for the political environment ... [which] is one in which we have to instill a sense of confidence in our constituents on a variety of different levels," said one Democratic lawmaker locked in a tough race.
"It's just, to me, stunning that people with the level of sophistication these folks have would demonstrate one episode of ineptness after another for such a long period of time," the lawmaker said, referring to White House officials. "Whether that's ineptitude or disregard — I'm not sure which one it is — but it's disconcerting to me."
This Democrat added that if Obama really wants to help boost House Members' re-election efforts, he needs to "stop talking about immigration" and "start focusing on the economy exclusively."
Freshman Rep. Bobby Bright, who is running in one of them most competitive House races this year, said he was "disappointed" by Gibbs' assessment and said it showed that White House officials do not understand the politics of districts like his.
"They need to come down and visit with me, get in my Ford F-150 and travel through my district and see how my folks respond to me as their Congressman," the Alabama Democrat said, "not to me as a Democrat or a Republican, but to me as their Congressman."
Bright called on Gibbs to come to his district and said he "would get a better assessment of who's going to be in the majority in November. ... People should not stereotype all the races across the country."
Freshman Rep. Steve Driehaus, also mired in a tight re-election campaign, wouldn't say whether the White House has been helpful to vulnerable Democrats like him, noting only that he expects it "to be very supportive."
"Why would we talk about this?" the Ohio Democrat asked. "It's not helpful."
A senior Democratic aide said Gibbs' comments were not helpful to the "60 to 70 Members who have been under fire for the last year and a half" while carrying water for the administration.
The House has delivered on nearly every major initiative handed down by the president, the aide said, only to see "the spokesman for the leader of the party inartfully saying something that most people would know would be misunderstood and used for the other side."
Gibbs has defended his Sunday comments, saying he didn't think he said "anything that was politically shocking."
Asked during Wednesday's press briefing whether he felt he handed Republicans an issue, Gibbs replied, "No."
But House Republican leaders are already treating the words as a gift: National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) sought to fire up his colleagues at a Wednesday Republican Conference meeting by playing the video of Gibbs' appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press."
"We now know what Nancy Pelosi had for breakfast," Sessions told his fellow Republicans. To which one Member in the audience replied, "Robert Gibbs."
"Yep, Robert Gibbs," Sessions said. "Rare."
John McArdle contributed to this report.