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House Democrats Brace for Potentially Tense Retreat

Pelosi's Democrats head to Philadelphia looking for unity. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The official theme of the House Democrats' annual "issues conference" this week is "Grow America's Economy, Grow American Paychecks."  

But the three-day retreat in Philadelphia, which kicks off Wednesday afternoon, could be a test of whether leaders and rank-and-file members can return to Washington, D.C., having found some common ground. For House Democrats, the months since the demoralizing midterm elections have been characterized by several public episodes of party infighting — about the culture of the caucus, the "brand" and the perceived lack of opportunities for younger members to climb the ranks.  

Power struggles and friction between factions are old story lines for the Republicans who came to power in the House in 2010, while Democrats have long been envied for keeping it together. But midterm losses that relegated the party to the biggest House minority in nearly a century have fueled some second-guessing among Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's troops.  

"When you lose, the warts come out," a House Democratic aide said of lawmakers' sudden nitpicking of caucus politics. "Winning is what cures everything."  

One target of frustration has been the minority leader herself. As the most nationally recognized House Democrat, many members see her as the face of the caucus's electoral woes and for ambitious lawmakers, she is an obstacle in the way of new blood flowing into senior leadership ranks.  

Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., the chairwoman of a leadership committee tasked with recommending rules changes to the full caucus, convened Tuesday the first of what she said would be several meetings exploring what members want to see done differently to improve mobility at the committee level, among other things.  

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus criticized recommendations to install term limits for panel leaders, saying the seniority system is the only way to protect lawmakers of color from being passed over for plum assignments.  

According to a source familiar with the closed-door discussions, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. — a New Jersey Democrat who recently benefitted from the seniority system in a bitter fight for ranking member of Energy and Commerce against Pelosi's fellow Californian and longtime ally Anna G. Eshoo — joined Bass in urging members to think creatively about how more junior members can make their mark without holding official titles.  

That may not pacify some of the most ambitious Democrats, who want to move up but find themselves blocked by Pelosi and other, older high-ranking members who show few signs of wishing to retire.  

At the head of the table, there's Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and Assistant Leader James E. Clyburn of South Carolina. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., has long-occupied one slot at the helm of the Steering and Policy Committee. And at the committee dais, there's Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the longest-serving member of Congress, who has been the top Democrat on Judiciary for decades. Incidentally, Clyburn and Conyers are both members of the CBC.  

Even critics acknowledge that Pelosi has, in fact, put some fresh faces in leadership ranks this Congress — Marylander Donna Edwards, the other co-chairwoman of Steering and Policy, and Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee .  

All these tensions could permeate the mood of the retreat; the real showdown, however, could occur over 2016 messaging.  

Following his two-term stint as chairman of the DCCC, Rep. Steve Israel of New York was chosen to head the newly created Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. His task: Get members to help craft a winning narrative for the next election cycle.  

Israel asked members to fill out lengthy surveys on the subject last week, and he plans to discuss responses at the retreat.  

Many lawmakers want a more aggressive stance on progressive issues. They lauded House Democrats' overwhelming rejection in December of legislation to fund the government because it included a provision rolling back a core component of existing Wall Street regulations.  

A broad coalition of House Democrats, many of whom identify as progressive, have said refusing to vote to give Obama authority to enter into trade negotiations is another bullet point to add to the Democratic platform.  

But trade has become a lightning-rod issue in the caucus, with many of the moderates who make up the sizable New Democrat Coalition countering that opposing a trade deal could cost the party voters in swing districts, and in places that voted for Mitt Romney for president in 2012.  

"We have to be a party that's for more than increasing the minimum wage and extending long-term unemployment benefits," said Chairman Ron Kind, D-Wis. "It's not something [Americans] aspire to, it's not something they want their kinds to achieve. No one wants their kids growing up to get a minimum wage job or be eligible for unemployment insurance."  

New Democrat Coalition Vice Chairman Jim Himes, D-Conn., agreed the message had to be broader next time: "I personally am not a big fan of the phrase 'middle-class economics.' That’s something you take in third period of sophomore year of high school."  

Himes said "opportunity" ought to be the buzzword for Democrats going forward.  

"We should facilitate opportunity at every level," he said.  

Israel told CQ Roll Call last week that he looked forward to working with all contingents of the caucus to refine the party's message, but some stakeholders remain skeptical.  

One senior House Democratic aide contended that the wrong people were filling the survey out: Feedback should instead be solicited by 2014 Democratic candidates and incumbents, the true arbiters of what went "right" and "wrong" last year.  

Ultimately, it could come down to what members are ready to say out loud to leadership — and what criticisms leaders are prepared to hear.  

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