House Democrats are heading to a retreat in Leesburg, Va., unified around a more aggressively liberal agenda put forward by President Barack Obama at his inaugural address, but they are facing lingering questions about how they’ll navigate the difficult path back to a House majority.
Lawmakers say the discussions at the three-day gathering will be dominated by four looming policy fights: spending battles, immigration, gun control and electoral changes. Obama is expected to brief Democrats on his plans for those issues Thursday, including a preview of his upcoming State of the Union address.
Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. will speak Wednesday, and President Bill Clinton is slated to deliver the closing keynote address Friday. There is also a surprise guest planned for Friday morning: Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra of California would only describe him as “he who will not be named.”
Unlike House Republicans at their confab in Williamsburg, Va., last month, Democrats are not facing a major crossroads over strategy.
Top House Democrats were delighted that Obama took a markedly liberal turn following his re-election and are counting on him to stay on offense, pressuring House Republicans to pass his agenda rather than becoming mired in spending battles defined by the GOP.
“We were so thrilled with the president’s inaugural address,” said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
“There’s a lot of enthusiasm, so you want to just keep that momentum going because I think everybody knows we’ve got some big things to do,” Becerra said, noting that registration for the event was unusually high this year.
“I think the president’s gonna spend most of his time giving us an idea of what he’s getting ready to tell the nation and the world at State of the Union. I think he’s going to be building on his great speech at inauguration,” Becerra said.
An underlying dynamic between House Democrats and Obama are questions about how much the president will do to help their efforts to retake the House in 2014 now that he no longer needs to worry about being re-elected.
Obama and his political machine have tended not to provide much assistance to congressional Democrats, including not directing any Democratic National Committee funds to congressional races in the 2012 elections.
Key Democrats said the issue is one they are watching closely but do not expect to discuss with the president at the retreat.
“The president working with the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] and helping out some of our current members and some future members would be great,” said Pennsylvania Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz, the campaign committee’s finance chairwoman.
Schwartz noted that Obama’s leadership on big policy battles is the most important political help he can provide House Democrats and said a winning strategy is to keep the discussion on Democrats’ agenda rather than fights over the deficit defined by the GOP.
Rep. Sander M. Levin of Michigan, the ranking member on the House Ways and Means Committee, said Democrats want Obama to remember the important role of the House minority on big issues, given the GOP’s narrow majority and fractured conference.
“I think our message would be on all these issues: Work closely with us. We’re a minority but a vital factor,” he said.
Levin added that coordination between the White House and congressional Democrats “needs to be and will be intensified.”
“On all of these issues, my judgment is working closely and effectively with him will increase our chances for taking back the House. Democratic votes in the House are going to be needed on every one of these issues. We’re going to actively shape the result on each of these issues,” he said.
DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said the committee’s “responsibility is to be focused on the midterm elections.”
“We’re going to be doing everything we can to help us win the House back and hold on to the Senate,” the Florida Democrat said. “The president has a good working relationship with the members and will continue to have one. That’s all I’ve got to say about that.”
On Wednesday, after introductory remarks by the retreat’s organizers, Democrats will begin a major panel on immigration moderated by Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California. Speakers include Angie Kelley from the Center for American Progress and Drew Westen, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University.
On Thursday, there are panels planned on gun control, electoral reforms and fiscal issues.
The gun control panel will be led by California Rep. Mike Thompson. Speakers include Anita Dunn, a former Obama spokeswoman; Amy Walter, an editor at National Journal, and Akhil Reed Amar, a professor at Yale.
Connecticut Rep. John B. Larson will moderate a panel on electoral changes titled “Strengthening Our Democracy.” Speakers include DCCC Chairman Steve Israel of New York; Wasserman Schultz; Nicole Austin-Hillery of the Brennan Center for Justice; Voto Latino CEO Maria Teresa Kumar; and Michael Malbin of the Campaign Finance Institute.
The fiscal panel will be led by Levin and Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, ranking member on the Budget Committee. Speakers include MIT professor Simon Johnson, Jim Kessler of Third Way, Ruy Teixeira of the Center for American Progress and Tricia Neuman of the Henry Kaiser Family Foundation.
Senate Democrats are holding their own retreat this week in Annapolis, which Obama is scheduled to address Wednesday morning. The topics are similar, including the sequester, immigration and reducing gun violence.