This wound-licking after Congress convenes Jan. 6 won’t be limited to the Nancy Pelosi-led conference for 188 returning and new House Democrats Jan. 28-30. The following week, a subgroup of about 60 members called the Congressional Progressive Caucus will return to Philadelphia for another retreat, where Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is invited to speak.
“We’ve got to get ready for an alley fight” with House Republicans, said Rep. Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat and progressive caucus co-chairman with Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota.
The question is what agenda House Democrats will push heading toward the 2016 presidential election year after losing 13 seats in the Nov. 4 election. The 247-188 House majority won by Republicans will be their largest since the Congress elected in 1928. Democrats lost the majority to Republicans in 2010.
House Republicans, also buoyed by their party’s takeover of the Senate, plan a joint getaway with Senate Republicans on Jan. 15-16 in Hershey, Pennsylvania, to plot legislative and political strategies.
Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, said the Democratic retreats may turn out to be therapeutic party soul-searching with a dash of hopeful cheerleading. He predicted little of substance will emerge.
“In any organization other than the House Democratic caucus, an election result as dismal as the one in November would have been cause for a wholesale turnover in leadership, but that didn’t happen,” said Baker.
At the top remains Pelosi, 74, a Californian who served for four years as the first female speaker of the House, surrendering the gavel to current Speaker John Boehner after the 2010 election. She has taken exception to suggestions it may be time for her to step aside and was re-elected by her colleagues last month to lead the minority party again.
Much of the reason why Pelosi holds on to power is that she remains the party’s rainmaker. Her energy and drive, including raising more than $80 million in the just-completed two-year election cycle, isn’t letting up.
Pelosi has said there are sexist overtones to the notion that she should move along. She questioned how many times reporters asked that of incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, 72, as his party had previously failed to capture the Senate majority over three elections.
“As a woman, it’s like, is there a message here?” asked Pelosi at a Nov. 13 news conference.
Criticism for Obama
While Republicans held no House seats in the six New England states in the past two years, in November they picked up two Democratic seats in Maine and New Hampshire, as well as several districts in New York state and elsewhere.
Some Democrats have complained that President Barack Obama didn’t take a more aggressive lead on an economic message and in touting Democrats’ achievements for working-class families.
Baker, the Rutgers professor, said House Democrats have a lot to decide about how to position themselves in the next session, on the economy as well as their basic constituencies and values.
The diminished minority party status threatens to leave Democrats as even more of an afterthought, and the reality is that Obama must work with Republican leaders of the House and Senate to get things accomplished.
Aides to Pelosi and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra of California so far aren’t saying what agenda topics, strategies and discussions will be considered at the party retreat next month at the Sheraton Philadelphia Society Hill Hotel.
A longer views
Even before the 2014 midterm election results were in, Pelosi was softening the blow by emphasizing to rank-and-file members a longer political view that the 2016 elections will bring a turnaround.
According to this view, having Hillary Clinton atop the Democratic presidential ticket will boost party fundraising and drive turnout of women, minorities and other Democrats to the polls – benefiting the party up and down the ticket. And that could propel the party back into the House majority.
This would depend on Clinton seeking and winning the presidency and Democrats recapturing the seats they lost in 2014, plus many more.
Baker said that while a presidential election year might bring optimism for gains, he sees no election math that could add up to a Democratic return to the House majority in two years.
“They should be meeting in Columbus or Jefferson City or St. Paul where the state legislatures meet and draw up the congressional district maps. In that way they can find salvation,” said Baker.
Daniel Herrera, a Democratic caucus spokesman, wouldn’t say whether Clinton has been asked to appear at the House Democratic retreat next month. Some rank and file House Democrats say they are looking toward a deeper discussion about their own legislative roles in the next congressional session.
Ideological fissures already appear to be developing, as 57 House Democrats joined 162 Republicans earlier this month in passing a $1.1 trillion spending bill. Boehner, faced with a shortfall of Republican support, had to rely on Obama’s last-minute pleas to Democrats to help pass the measure.
That came over the opposition of Pelosi and other Democrats to provisions raising the maximum amount of money campaign donors can give to party committees, and amending the Dodd-Frank bank regulation law to allow banks once again to trade derivatives with government-insured funds.
Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts said he doesn’t dispute that a huge turnout in a presidential election year could turn things around for House Democrats. “I believe anything can happen,” he said. Democrats already have the right message in calling for spreading economic prosperity to all Americans, he said.
“I really do think it would be a mistake to rebrand ourselves,” McGovern said. “But I think before the next election, at least for the next few months, we need to think about our own message and to think strategically about it, to be as effective legislatively as we can.”
That also reflects the sentiment from Grijalva, co-chairman of the progressive caucus that will hold its own retreat Feb. 6-7 at the Sonesta Philadelphia hotel. Former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis has been invited to speak, along with Warren, who hasn’t yet said she will be there.
The progressive caucus represents a more liberal group than the full Democratic House membership. Grijalva said a main emphasis will be that Democrats must draw sharper policy contrasts between themselves and Republicans, and can no longer wait for someone else to lead on economic, environmental and other issues.
“We are not going to wait on anybody,” said Grijalva.