House Dems' 2016 Plan: Buck GOP

House Dems' 2016 Plan: Buck GOP
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BALTIMORE — Democrats’ election year agenda involves pushing their own priorities but also countering Republicans every step of the way.

Democrats’ chances of passing any legislation through Congress this year are slim given the shortened calendar, already tumultuous presidential election and the GOP’s significant majority in the House.

But House Democrats gathered for a three-day retreat here this week to plot strategy and attend policy workshops and speeches by President Obama, Vice President Biden, billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer and “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah. Two weeks ago, congressional Republicans met across the harbor to establish their priorities for the year, including crafting broad policy proposals ranging from an Obamacare replacement to tax and welfare reform. While Democrats laid out their 2016 agenda — including familiar items such as immigration reform, the minimum wage and promoting the Affordable Care Act — they also promised to contrast the GOP vision.

California Rep. Xavier Becerra, chairman of the Democratic Caucus, acknowledged that being in the minority makes it difficult to push an agenda since Republicans control the floor schedule and what bills make it to a vote.

He said Democrats were going to “look for those windows” where they can take advantage of circumstances to push their priorities. In the past, those windows often have come when Republicans, facing a deadline and unable to rally enough GOP votes for must-pass legislation, turn to Democrats for help.

“One of the things we want to make sure we do here is really come together, understand what our mission is, what our direction is, so when the window opens, we press,” Becerra said.

Despite having nearly 60 fewer seats in the lower chamber than Republicans, Democrats saw a string of victories last year. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi successfully kept the vast majority of the caucus together to support Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran over the summer, negotiated an increase in spending levels above sequestration in the fall and prevented measures to defund Planned Parenthood and other GOP priorities from being added to the omnibus spending bill in the winter.

She praised her caucus, saying that Democratic unity is “not about us keeping together — it’s about our values. Our values draw us together and that we share and that we act upon."

Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, a member of Democratic leadership, pointed to the appropriations process as a possible opening for Democrats.

Because government funding levels and the debt ceiling are both off the docket thanks to last year’s spending deal, Democrats won’t have any cliffs to turn to as leverage.

Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have been emphatic that Congress should pass all 12 individual appropriations bills this year — something that hasn’t happened in two decades. But with seemingly endless amendments in committee and on the floor, those bills would give Democrats plenty of opportunities for votes on their agenda. DeLauro cautioned that Democrats, who have also pushed for fixing the appropriations process, would have to walk the line between fighting for their priorities and not upending the process.

“I’ll be up front with you: I believe the appropriations process gives us leverage,” she told reporters here Wednesday. “They cannot pass appropriations bills without us — they haven’t been able to do that. I believe that is leverage. We’ll get our message out, but I also think we ought to be very strong and understanding that we have to break this logjam.”

Ryan has said he sees this year as an opportunity to lay out conservative principles and give voters a clear choice headed into November. On the clear choice, at least, Republicans and Democrats are on the same page. Democrats eagerly await the policy proposals from the GOP, convinced they will provide specifics Democrats can attack headed into the election.

“Sixty-two times repealing the Affordable Care Act is not sufficient,” Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer said. “They need to show what they want to replace it with and let the American public know the consequences of their proposals.”

Becerra added: “We hope they do because we’ve got something that’s worked — 18 million people, health insurance, no pre-existing conditions — so we’ve got something that we can stand on. We’d like to see what they have and that may give us an opportunity to press a bit more.”

New York Rep. Steve Israel, who leads Democrats’ messaging, said the year comes down to financial, paycheck and national security issues. He said House Democrats’ goal will be to remind Americans where each party stands and bank on the public rallying behind Democratic messages.

While presidential election years are notoriously slow in Congress — with members spending time in their districts, often focusing on their own elections and hesitant to push controversial votes that might hurt them politically — Democrats were adamant about not letting the entirety of 2016 slip away.

“It’s damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead," said DeLauro. "We’re going to try to accomplish whatever we can for 2016."

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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