Retreat Draws Record Attendance

Posted February 2, 2007 at 6:39pm

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — House Democrats assembled in record numbers at their annual retreat last week, mulling the conduct of the Iraq War while at the same time still working to shape a domestic policy agenda for the duration of the 110th Congress.

Democratic leaders credited the high turnout — estimated at nearly 200 of the 233-member Caucus — to the fact that the retreat marks the first such gathering since the party captured the majority.

“The attendance has been 100 percent. The attention has been rapt. The questions have been informed,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) asserted at a Friday press briefing held a few miles away from the Kingsmill Resort & Spa, which housed the retreat and was closed to the public during the three-day event. “Everyone knows we have the responsibility to get things done now.”

During the session, Democrats also addressed strategic matters as the party sought ways not only to defend its new status but to expand its House majority.

“The key is not to become the party of the status quo,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said at a Friday press briefing along with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.).

Thursday’s session featured a video presentation touting that “change” theme, according to Democratic sources, featuring news clips of freshman lawmakers, referred to by party leaders as “majority makers,” and commentary from leadership, backed by the U2 song “Beautiful Day” — the same song Democratic leaders played election night once it was clear the party had retaken control of the House.

The schedule also included a presentation by Van Hollen outlining DCCC strategy for the 2008 election cycle.

“We’ll do it by using the lessons we learned” in 2006, said one Democratic aide. In addition to targeting seats opened by retirements and those occupied by “ethically challenged” lawmakers, the strategy also focuses on “staying on offense and protecting the majority makers.”

In addition to discussing fundraising goals, the session also focused on motivating Members within their districts, building on new media tools — such as growing Members’ e-mail lists to include at least 30,000 addresses — and identifying at least 1,000 volunteers in the initial months of the new cycle.

During the presentation Van Hollen also emphasized to his colleagues the dramatic turnaround in public perception of the Democratic Party, citing polling figures that illustrate an increased confidence in Democrats’ handling of terrorism, the economy and the Iraq War over a three-year period.

“Our challenge is to make sure we follow through on the commitments we’ve made,” Van Hollen added Friday.

Another Democratic aide in attendance, who also asked not to be identified, said of the presentation: “This was a really good presentation to remind folks what hard work means.”

In the meantime, while Democrats completed their touted “100 hours” program in mid-January, approving legislation to raise the federal minimum wage and support stem-cell research, the new majority has yet to offer a specific agenda beyond the fiscal 2008 federal budget and spending bills for the coming months.

Working to shape those decisions, Democrats addressed various domestic issues during their retreat, as well as the predominant subject of the Iraq War.

Former Central Command Chief Joseph Hoar, a retired Marine general who has criticized the Bush administration’s handling of the war, addressed the Caucus on Friday, speaking on Iraq and the Persian Gulf.

“Some agreed, some disagreed in terms of should the troops come out now,” Pelosi said of the Iraq discussion.

The Iraq War also was expected to dominate the agenda Saturday, when Democrats were scheduled to meet with President Bush.

On the home front, Democrats spent a portion of the retreat mulling items such as environmental protections, global warming, child development and national security.

“Our agenda is a consensus agenda,” Pelosi said, asserting that Democrats will remain cohesive even as the party moves on from its initial program, which included legislative priorities that garnered widespread agreement in the Caucus. “There’s so much to do, it’s a matter of in which order do we do them.”

In addition, Democratic lawmakers heard Thursday from former President Bill Clinton, who spoke at length on numerous topics, discussing his support for his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), as well as praising other potential White House candidates.

Assessing the record turnout Friday, Hoyer said that while he would stop short of describing the Democrats’ mood as “euphoric,” he did call it “exalted” and “successful,” as well as “excellent,” “energized,” “optimistic” and “very positive.”