Democrats Eye More Modest Retreat

Posted November 20, 2009 at 6:05pm

House Democrats are wrestling with where to hold their annual retreat next winter amid concerns they’ll get lampooned for huddling at a luxe resort against the backdrop of soaring unemployment.

Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.) had been pushing to hold the issues conference in Charleston, S.C., but other leaders shot down the pitch at a Thursday meeting, sources familiar with the session said. The location had wide support within the Caucus, but leaders determined that jetting off to a sunny vacation spot while the party tries to demonstrate its commitment to tackling joblessness would result in a public relations disaster.

Instead, top Democrats appear inclined to stage the event in a Northern city rocked by the economic downturn, with Detroit and Baltimore under serious consideration.

That would mark a departure from the past five years, when Democratic lawmakers gathered at the upscale Kingsmill Resort and Spa in Williamsburg, Va., which boasts “unforgettable golf, luxurious accommodations, first-class dining, a premier spa and an abundance of recreational opportunities.—

Democrats escaped criticism for the trip until last year when, in the face of an economic meltdown, they retreated to the tony hotel while bashing Wall Street titans for their eye-popping pay packages and posh corporate retreats. Editorial boards and watchdogs took notice and rapped lawmakers as hypocritical and out of touch.

Larson made the case for South Carolina in part by pointing to its unemployment rate, which is among the highest in the nation. But the optics presented too great a problem. “There was a recognition by the Speaker and others that having a retreat in South Carolina would not sit well in these economic times,— one senior Democratic aide said. “This thing could be symbolically helpful in showing Congress is committed to moving the economy forward and creating jobs.—

The debate over the retreat is a testament to pressures facing the sweeping Democratic agenda at a time when there is a growing political urgency to focus more narrowly on job creation. After approving a sweeping health care overhaul lambasted by Republicans as a budget buster, House Democrats are now trying to strike a balance in crafting a jobs package. They need it to pack enough punch to boost employment rolls without exacerbating growing public fears over the size of the deficit.

The timing of that measure is still uncertain, but it likely will not be conferenced with a Senate version until at least January, around the time on the calendar Democrats are eyeing for their retreat.

The yearly event has traditionally been a time for lawmakers to bond in a sequestered setting away from their hectic day-to-day routines on Capitol Hill. Last year, a record 200 Democratic lawmakers made the trip. The conference was jam-packed with events including addresses by President Barack Obama, Vice President Joseph Biden, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and others. Members also enjoyed downtime, and many brought their spouses. A cohort of reporters came, too, but with limited access to the Members. Some aides suggested, however, that this year’s event could take on a more publicly oriented cast as a jobs summit, with lawmakers participating in jobs fairs or roundtables with local leaders to discuss the state of the economy.

Detroit offers the backdrop of an epicenter of economic woe with unemployment in the city topping 17 percent after the collapse of the auto industry. And several House Democratic leaders are expected to travel there anyway in mid-January for the North American International Auto Show. Baltimore has the advantage of proximity — not to mention it’s Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) hometown and in the home state of two other leaders, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman and Assistant to the Speaker Chris Van Hollen. Democratic aides cautioned, however, that no decisions have been made — and some said other hard-hit cities could emerge, or Democrats could scrap the trip altogether and hold the retreat in town.

The trick, said one ethics watchdog, will be to find a locale and accommodations suitable for lawmakers while not sending the wrong message. “Especially at this very difficult time, it’s not helpful for any lawmaker to be seen living high on the hog,— said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “There’s a span between the Motel 6 and the Ritz-Carlton. They should pick something in the middle that won’t offend people who are suffering.—

The House Republican Conference declined to comment on the location of the GOP retreat. Several Republican sources said the dates and the location of the annual meeting are still in flux.

For both parties, Members themselves pay for lodging, but Democrats and Republicans handle the rest of the tabs differently. The GOP lobbyist group Congressional Institute foots the bill for Republican travel and some other expenses. Democrats tap taxpayer funds to cover transportation, conference rooms and catering.

Jackie Kucinich contributed to this report.