Bloomberg News

U.S. House Democrats at Retreat Turn to Obama on Message

January 30, 2012

(Updates with Rendell comments starting in seventh paragraph.)

Jan. 26 (Bloomberg) -- Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives are taking a cue from President Barack Obama by casting Republicans as the roadblocks preventing passage of legislation to aid the middle class.

During their three-day strategy session at a resort on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Democrats plan to build on the sharp contrast that Obama has been drawing.

“The problem with this Congress is there is no vision, and that opens up a wide berth for us to appeal to the American people, and we’re going to do that,” said Representative Joe Crowley of New York, a member of the Democratic leadership. “The American people want to see a functioning Congress.”

The theme of the Democratic party retreat, “Reigniting the American Dream,” tracks closely with the central message of Obama’s Jan. 24 State of the Union address.

The event, which began yesterday, doubles as a rally for the party’s efforts to win back House seats lost in 2010. Among the speakers are Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, Commerce Secretary John Bryson, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel of New York and Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who is also a House member from Florida.

Democrats now hold 191 seats, while Republicans have 242. There are two vacancies.

New Posture

Rendell told reporters today that there is “a growing sense of optimism” among House Democrats about their prospects for returning the party to the majority in their chamber. He said he urged them to “stand and defend” their “core beliefs” and Obama’s policies such as the 2009 stimulus and the health care law.

“You can’t run away from the president,” Rendell said in a telephone interview before his speech. Too many Democrats in 2010 “tried to be Republican-lite,” he said.

“If you’re going to vote for a Republican, you’re going to choose a real Republican over Republican-lite,” Rendell said. “That’s where we went astray.”

Rendell said the primary fight for the Republican presidential nomination and the signs of an improving economy have strengthened Obama’s standing among voters.

Congressional candidates in many states have an extra challenge this year because of redrawn district boundaries, based on the 2010 census, that provide more safety to vulnerable Republicans.

A Year Later

Still, House Democrats have a more assertive posture than a year ago, when they spent their retreat reflecting on what went wrong in the midterm election that delivered a 63-seat loss and a Republican majority.

A year later, they maintain that public sentiment is shifting back in their direction following bitter battles last year over government spending, an increase in the federal debt limit and an extension of a two-percentage-point payroll tax cut.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted Jan. 12-15 put the approval rating for Congress at 13 percent, the lowest ever in that survey. A Dec. 15-18 Gallup poll placed the figure at 11 percent, a record low.

Democratic candidates plan to tell voters that if returned to the majority, they can do better.

Candidate Bounty

“We’re in a very strong position,” said Representative Allyson Schwartz, a Pennsylvania Democrat who heads the DCCC’s candidate recruitment and retention efforts. “Many of these candidates present themselves to us and say they want to step up and do it, and they’re a wide variety -- mayors and sheriffs and veterans and business people and people from state legislatures.”

With the election a little more than nine months away, political considerations are pressing enough to prompt at least one member of the caucus to consider skipping the retreat.

Representative Raul Grijalva of Arizona said he may miss all or part of the retreat so he can spend that time at home. A former Democratic state senator, Amanda Aguirre, announced last month that she was forming a committee to explore challenging Grijalva in the state’s Aug. 28 primary.

“I want to check out my district first,” Grijalva said. “Some of us might have primaries.”

Harder Line

Grijalva, who survived a tougher-than-anticipated race in 2010, said Democrats were better positioned “attitude-wise” now than they were a year ago, in part because Obama is taking a harder line with Republicans.

“In the House, our legs were not strong because there was this effort to try to reach consensus, bipartisanship, and we discovered, time after time, that the Republican majority -- and the Tea Party faction in particular -- were not going to play it,” he said.

Georgia Republican Representative Tom Price said Democrats should move more in the direction of the majority party.

“Hopefully, they’ll come to the conclusion that they need to encourage their leader, the president, to work with Congress,” Price said.

--Editors: Jodi Schneider, Leslie Hoffecker

To contact the reporter on this story: Kathleen Hunter in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Katherine Rizzo at

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