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LEESBURG, Va. — The mood among House Democrats these days — gathered for what amounts to an annual party pep rally — does a good job of masking their status as the least relevant caucus on Capitol Hill.
That was evident when President Barack Obama delivered a “keep up the good fight” speech Thursday at the minority party’s issues retreat here at the Lansdowne Resort, touching on the continued fiscal fight, immigration and guns.
Ironically, the guns issue, which leaders haven’t wanted to touch for years, is a key plank uniting the party. It’s also a primary focus of the three-day confab, despite the hurdles it faces in the House, where Republicans decide which bills come to the floor.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi unveiled proposals from a House Democratic task force Thursday that mirror Obama’s ideas on the subject, and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. delivered an emotional address on the topic Wednesday evening.
Included in the House plan is a far-reaching ban on assault weapons, which will have difficulty passing the Senate, let alone the GOP-controlled House.
But compared with other caucus retreats across the chambers, the mood among House Democrats seems to be the most optimistic.
“This is very upbeat. The election results very much energized us. The people really did speak. It’s very different, and we’ll see how much the Republicans react to the difference,” Michigan Rep. Sander M. Levin said.
But in a notable sign of party divisiveness on gun issues, one of the task force’s vice chairmen, Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan, released a statement expressing “serious and honest concerns” about some of the proposals.
Obama is expected to address the gun control issue, and possibly those concerns, in his State of the Union address next week. He told House Democrats Thursday that the theme will be the “bedrock notion that our economy succeeds and our economy grows when everybody’s getting a fair shot and everybody’s getting a fair shake.”
Undergirding Democratic optimism on guns, immigration and upcoming spending battles is a hope that Obama can force the House GOP to buckle under unrelenting political pressure.
Addressing the sequester, Obama told House Democrats that he is “more than willing” to stare down the GOP on whether legislation to replace the cuts should include tax increases as well as replacement spending cuts.
Obama told the caucus in a closed-door question-and-answer session that a key factor in the party winning battles on the issue will be making a public case in campaign-style events around the country, Levin said.
Republicans have, in recent months, shown a willingness to essentially relinquish control of the chamber, bringing bills to the floor that pass with mostly Democratic votes — a precedent Democrats frequently cite.
One key question is whether Obama can repeat it on issues such as immigration and gun control, with no deadline or looming disaster forcing Congress to act in a given time frame.
Another is whether Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, is willing to risk a GOP revolt to allow future bills that do not enjoy support from a majority of Republicans to pass the House.
The most pressing issue facing Congress is the sequester, which is slated to go into effect March 1.
The GOP would like to replace the sequester with other, more targeted spending cuts, while Democrats have said Congress should replace them with a combination of cuts and tax increases that would decrease the deficit by the same amount.
“We need to reduce the deficit, but it shouldn’t just be on the backs of seniors, it shouldn’t just be on the backs of young people who are trying to get a college education, it shouldn’t just be on the backs of parents who are trying to give their kids a better start in life — that all of us have to participate,” Obama said in his speech to House Democrats. “I promise you we can win that debate.”
Obama also made several references to complaints from House members who feel he has not paid sufficient attention to their interests, at times gently mocking them for taking issue with his approach.
Beginning his remarks with an unexpected announcement that he would take questions from members after his speech, Obama said, “I thought, since this is not a shy bunch, it might make sense for me to take some questions and some advice I’m sure you guys have for me.”
He later referred to reading about the complaints in the press but said that as long as members remember “why we came here in the first place” and that “maybe my purpose here on Earth is not just thinking about what’s in it for me,” Democrats will continue making “extraordinary progress” on policy fights.
“As a by-product of doing that good work and keeping that focus, I would expect that Nancy Pelosi’s gonna be speaker again real soon,” he added.