Huddled House Democrats Face ‘Cold, Hard Realism’

From their snowy retreat, they see an icy road ahead.

A snowman wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap along the National Mall after a snow storm in Washington, DC, on February 13, 2014. The DC area received its first significant winter storm starting Wednesday night February 12th with 6-8 inches (15-20 cm) falling throughout the metro area.
National Journal
Add to Briefcase
Billy House
Feb. 13, 2014, 1:35 p.m.

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.