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As Takeover Hopes Fade, House Democrats Remain Upbeat

Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., right, pick up box lunches on Feb. 12 before boarding a bus for a trip to a retreat in Cambridge, Md., where House Democrats will hold strategy meetings for two and a half days.
J. Scott Applewhite
Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., right, pick up box lunches on Feb. 12 before boarding a bus for a trip to a retreat in Cambridge, Md., where House Democrats will hold strategy meetings for two and a half days.

House Democrats face a decidedly grim election season.

Their hopes of wresting control from the GOP look increasingly remote. Their legislative agenda is stymied. And some of their biggest liberal standard-bearers - Californians Henry Waxman and George Miller -- are retiring.

So, as they hunker down on Maryland's Eastern Shore for their annual "issues conference" Thursday and Friday, why do they seem to be in such good spirits?


There was reportedly impromptu dancing to Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley's guitar playing Wednesday night. Leadership also engaged in some good-natured scolding of the press for using "Obamacare" as shorthand for the president's signature Affordable Care Act.

And members, who had high-tailed it out of Washington before the Wednesday night-and-beyond snowstorm shut down the capital, were filling their dance cards with pump-you-up sessions on the minimum wage, income inequality, and how to win over unmarried women. (Make that more unmarried women; it's a demographic already dominated by Democrats.)

Two reasons seem to explain why House Democrats seem so improbably upbeat: The Tea Party and cash.

"The Tea Party is probably what helps House Democrats get up in the morning," says Nathan Gonzales of the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report, which analyzes congressional races.

"When they look at a number of other factors - from their president's job rating, to some of their own colleagues who are retiring, the news isn't great," he said. "They are fueled by the Tea Party and a Republican-led House that appears to be constantly going too far."


To that point: before the Democrats headed to Maryland, Republican House Speaker John Boehner, stymied by his fractious caucus and facing another crisis over the nation's borrowing power, had to turn to the minority party to get a "clean" debt ceiling bill passed.

House Democrats, for that brief legislative instance, mattered. So heady was that moment that it prompted Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York to suggest that perhaps a similar scenario could play out in the House on the issue of immigration. The Senate last year passed an immigration reform bill; the House has not acted.

"In this Senate ... we forged a coalition," Schumer said Thursday on MSNBC. "So in the House there's a lot of trouble because our Tea Party friends are very much against it, and while a lot of Republicans are the same as I believe they were on the debt, they want to vote no but hope yes, there's a real chance, I still think, to get this done."

Schumer was engaged in some mischief-making, considering that statistics show that the issue of immigration plays very differently in Republican House districts --the vast majority of which have 20 percent or fewer Hispanic constituents. And it would be a steep climb for House Democrats, currently outnumbered 232-200, to put together a majority on the issue.

California GOP Rep. David Valadao, who previously endorsed immigration reform, dismissed Schumer's proposal.

"Congressman Valadao does not believe there is sufficient support among House Republicans to support a discharge petition related to the Senate immigration bill, nor does he believe that is the best path forward," says Tal Eslick, his chief of staff. "He remains committed to working with Democrats and Republicans to provide a solution that addresses all aspects of immigration reform."

None of this chatter seems likely to translate into a fall victory for House Democrats. They need a net gain of 17 seats to win a majority; their best case scenario at this point looks to be a pick-up of a handful of seats.

While Obama and the Affordable Care Act remain the salient issues in most races, House Republican divisions that have led to majority party gridlock give the nothing-to-lose Democrats an opportunity to hit Boehner and crew for failing to move job, immigration and wage bills. Victimization has its perks.

Despite the cloudy November outlook, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has been busily filling its coffers.

Year-end reports show that the DCCC raised close to $76 million in 2013, and had a balance of $29 million going into the new year.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, by comparison, raised $60.5 million last year, and reported $21 million in the bank at the end of December.

The president is scheduled to give the keynote address at the conference Friday midday, to a group of legislators eager to hear some good news on the health care law front.

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