CAMBRIDGE, Md.—Dreary weather, low turnout, and an icy political outlook for this year's election chilled the House Democratic retreat here. Even an appearance by Vice President Joe Biden got snowed out.
President Obama is still expected to speak Friday to the 110 or so lawmakers—just over half the caucus—who made it to talk strategy at a tony hotel better suited for summer. And Biden is apt to make it, too.
But digging out of this malaise will take more energy than Obama's speech can deliver, even as Democratic leaders circulated word that the president has committed to do at least six fundraisers for House Democrats.
"It's not pessimism—just as it's not optimism," said Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut, the national finance chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "It is cold, hard realism."
The House majority is now held by 232 Republicans, and the GOP could gain seats in this year's election. That means Democrats are facing the reality that they are likely to remain the minority party, and the retreat seemed to focus more on the political landscape than on policy.
Democrats are stuck with a legislative wish list—items like immigration reform and a minimum-wage increase—that the GOP majority won't abide. Meanwhile, legislation that might gain traction, like addressing surveillance issues, is not likely not give Democrats a boost in November.
At the same time, Democrats on the campaign trail know they must brace for criticism as part of a do-nothing Congress, even though they are not at the helm, as well as Republican body blows over the Affordable Care Act.
Even Rep. Steve Israel, chair of the DCCC, played less the cheerleader on Thursday than, as Himes puts it, "somone who calls it like it is" during an hour-long, closed-door presentation. According to those in the room, Israel led off with the message that "some fights are worth fighting."
Israel said there are 11 GOP-held seats that Democrats consider competitive, and argued that "it's a myth that retirements have hurt us." He also said the DCCC so far has outraised the National Republican Congressional Committee, though the impact of outside groups could offset that.
Israel also presented polling that shows "on the issues that matter to the American people, we're winning." He ticked off raising the minimum wage, extending unemployment insurance, and implementing Obamacare.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, chair the Democratic National Committee, also gave a private presentation, but declined afterward to say if she believed her party could take the House this November. "We're not making predictions," she said.
Of course, it wasn't all doom and gloom. Israel in particular started on a light note. "He opened with a video—it was terrific—of great fights that have been fought, including John Belushi in Animal House [shouting], 'Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?'," Himes said.
Minority Whip Steny Hoyer jokingly suggested that the recently announced retirements of GOP Reps. Doc Hastings and Buck McKeon might signal that "they don't expect to keep the majority."
There were some policy discussions, too. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other House Democratic leaders gathered to announce Democrats will start the process of trying to force a vote on a minimum-wage increase to $10.10 an hour through discharge petition when the chamber reconvenes later this month.
Such a measure would require a majority of House members to sign the petition, meaning it would require some Republican support to advance. Democratic leaders also did not rule out a similar effort on immigration reform.
"We think that's not only the right thing to do, it's time to do it," said Rep. Xavier Becerra, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.
One thing that apparently was not discussed, lawmakers say, was any unhappiness with Pelosi and her leadership team.
"There is absolutely zero rumbling," Himes said.
"There is absolutely no talk, you know -- even after three or four drinks -- about 'Is our leadership not doing enough?'," Himes said.
This article appears in the February 14, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.