House Dems huddle ahead of major legislative fights
Members to get pep talks from Obama, Biden, Clinton
Two and a half weeks after President Barack Obama laid out his ambitious second-term priorities during his inauguration speech, his Democratic allies in the House of Representatives are huddling to plot how those goals can be met while Republicans hold control of the chamber.
On their plate are proposals enacting new restrictions on owning guns, comprehensive immigration reform and mandatory spending cuts -- all issues where Democrats and Republicans have traditionally been unable to find common ground.
Speaking at a news conference at the beginning of the House Democratic Caucus retreat, held at a golf resort in the outer Washington suburb of Leesburg, the caucus' vice chairman, Rep. Joe Crowley, said he was confident his minority party would have a voice in debates dominated by House Republicans and the White House.
"It's been somewhat of a pleasant surprise that minority votes have been relevant," Crowley said. "We talk about tackling big problems, and sometimes big problems need big solutions, and that means bipartisanship. We recognize we are in the minority, but some of these issues are bigger than Democrats or Republicans.
At their retreat, the Democrats were to hear from Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday and Obama on Thursday. Former President Bill Clinton was slated to close out the event on Friday.
And while Democrats, unlike Republicans, aren't facing an identity crisis borne from last year's election, they are still the minority in the House and will be defending 21 of the 35 seats up for re-election in the Senate in 2014.
Regaining the House majority lost in 2010 is a main goal for the party in the next two years, though it remains unclear how much help members will receive from Obama, who didn't fundraise at all for House Democrats during his 2012 re-election bid and won't be running his own campaign in 2014.
Since losing the House majority to the GOP in 2010, some Democrats have been left disappointed on issues where Obama struck a deal with Republican leaders, such as the deal to avert a government shutdown in 2011 and the agreement avoiding the fiscal cliff at the beginning of the year.
Both Republicans and Democrats have also grumbled about the president's seeming unwillingness to work with rank and file members, choosing instead to deal primarily with the House and Senate leadership, and often delegating negotiations to Biden or top aides.
Speaking at the news conference on Wednesday, Rep. Javier Becerra, the chairman of the Democratic caucus, said there would be opportunity for interaction with the president when he speaks to members on Thursday -- but that lawmakers should understand the president is a busy man.
"Like our 310 million fellow Americans, we know the president of the United States is not going to have a chance to speak to every one of us," he said.
Crowley said everyone would like greater interaction with Obama.
"But the right amount of interaction is arbitrary," he said. "It shouldn't be about personal feelings, or if the president feels good about us. It's about what we're doing to solve problems in front of America today."
Obama's relationship with Congress will be put into the spotlight in the coming weeks as major legislative issues come before Congress.
Democrats in the House face battles with majority Republicans on a diverse range of issues, from the annual budget fight that began at the beginning of January to the emotionally charged matter of increasing restrictions on guns, which Obama is pushing after December's shooting at a Connecticut elementary school.
While Obama and some Senate Democrats are pressing to reinstate a ban on military-style assault weapons, most observers say that measures bolstering background checks stand the best chance of advancing through Congress, including through the Republican-held House.
On Tuesday, the No. 2 House Republican, Rep. Eric Cantor, told CNN Chief Congressional Correspondent Dana Bash that he supported beefing up background checks, including improving the federal database those checks utilize.
Democratic leaders in the House, however, prefer more sweeping measures, including the assault weapons ban and prohibiting high capacity ammunition magazines. But even some pro-gun Democrats could oppose those measures, making passage unlikely.
The House is also expected to take up immigration reform at some point in the coming months after a major push from both Obama and a bipartisan group of senators.
A group of Democratic and Republican House members are also meeting in secret to develop bipartisan immigration reform legislation, though members are tightlipped on specifics of what could be included in their plan or when it could be presented.
House Speaker John Boehner did acknowledge the group's existence during a speech to the conservative Ripon Society in January, saying members "basically have an agreement."
At Wednesday's news conference, Democratic lawmakers were less forthcoming, saying only that lawmakers in their caucus hadn't gone into any detail so far on the bipartisan conversations at this week's retreat.
"We didn't get into any specifics with any conversations going on between Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate, but we agreed something needs to be done to fix this immigration system," Becerra said.
House Republican leaders, intent on rehabilitating their brand among Latino voters, have largely remained silent about what specifics they would include in an immigration reform plan, namely whether they would support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already living in the United States.
In the past, Republicans have opposed such a measure, calling it amnesty. But in the bipartisan Senate framework unveiled last week - crafted with the support of Sen. Marco Rubio, among other Republicans -- such a pathway is proposed, contingent on ramped up border security.
At the House's first immigration hearing Tuesday, some Republicans also proposed introducing immigration reform measures piecemeal, rather than as part of a large comprehensive deal.
Watching the hearing, Becerra said he at least saw lawmakers prepared to tackle the hot-button issue of immigration.
"While maybe some may have listened to that hearing and said the Republicans aren't yet ready to go beyond DREAM Act, I heard something very different. I didn't hear Republicans saying it was impossible," he said.
Even more encouraging, he said, were conversations he's had in private with Republican colleagues, who Becerra believes "are ready for comprehensive immigration reform."
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