Updated 10:30 p.m. | With a Thursday government funding deadline looming and negotiations ongoing, House Democrats decided late Tuesday to move their retreat scheduled for Wednesday through Friday from Cambridge, Maryland, to the Capitol complex.
“Given the pressing issues Congress will likely vote on over the next three days, House Democrats will hold their United for A Better Tomorrow Issues Conference at the U.S. Capitol,” Democratic Caucus spokeswoman Lauren French said. “Scheduling updates will be shared as soon as they are available.”
Even before the announcement, Democrats were expecting they may have to cut short their retreat to return to Washington for votes — they had buses ready on standby, just in case.
“We’re being very flexible, depending on what happens. We’ll play it by ear,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley said earlier Tuesday. “We’ll be ready and prepared to be back for any and all votes.”
Some Democrats already weren’t thrilled about the potential disruption, attributing it to poor planning by the Republican majority, which controls the floor schedule.
“We are pretty disappointed that this is happening right in the middle of our retreat,” New York Rep. Louise Slaughter said earlier Tuesday during a Rules Committee hearing on the House stopgap measure, which Democrats slammed as a partisan messaging bill rather than an effort to actually compromise. The stopgap later passed the House, with 17 Democrats voting in favor and eight Republicans opposed.
Watch: Why Does Congress ‘Retreat?’
No ‘self-inflicted wounds’
The looming government funding and immigration deadlines were on the Democrats’ list of priorities to talk about at the retreat. They see the GOP’s failure to address the immigration crisis — created when President Donald Trump announced last year he was winding down the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program — and pass a real fiscal 2018 spending package as examples of its failure to govern as a responsible majority party. And Democrats plan to message on that.
“It’s absolutely to make it really clear that we want to hold our Republican colleagues, particularly the leadership and the White House accountable, for their lack of governing and creating such insecurity,” said New Mexico Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
“In my state, the CR is — we’ve got one of the highest unemployment rates in the country — is literally, ‘Just please keep setting us on fire without any fire trucks.’ I mean it’s just been a disaster,” added Lujan Grisham, who is running for governor this year.
Facing a midterm election that, if played right, could put them back in control of the House, Democrats were expected to focus on refining a broader message about what their party stands for.
“I hope we’ll strategically look at what between today and November looks like and really stay focused on that, making sure that we’re smart and doing all the right things and not having any self-inflicted wounds,” said Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos, who co-chairs the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, before the retreat was relocated.
Bustos defined self-inflicted wounds as “anytime we’re not focused on helping people’s lives improve.”
Going on offense
Democrats need to net 24 seats to win the House. To do that, they’re going after wealthier, suburban districts that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. Twenty-three Republicans represent districts that voted for Clinton.
But in an effort to expand the map, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is also targeting districts that Trump took by less than 50 percent of the vote, as well as some in deep-red territory that he carried by high double digits.
That’s one reason Democrats like Bustos are focused on having their own economic message that’s not just about opposing Trump. The president narrowly carried her Illinois district.
“I think anything that gets away from that is a diversion, and we ought to answer for that,” Bustos said. “I’m not saying that we don’t address Dreamers or don’t address immigration reform or Russia. … Let’s focus on what people at home want to see a focus on. I can tell you, they’re not obsessed about Russia and the wall.”
How to message to Trump voters who feel government has done nothing to help them is something Democrats are still refining. Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., one of the party leaders considered best equipped to counter Trump’s appeal among working-class voters, was scheduled to be the Democrats’ keynote speaker in Cambridge.
Other speakers were expected to “focus on House Democrats’ agenda to build an economy that works for everyone by raising the minimum wage to a living wage, addressing the economic challenges facing women and working families, ensuring access to affordable health care, fixing our broken immigration system, and strengthening our democracy,” an earlier Democratic Caucus release said.
But how much they’ll get to discuss those issues over the next three days is still at the mercy of the shutdown schedule.
Kellie Mejdrich contributed to this report.