This year’s Baltimore gathering marked a fresh test not just for Jeffries, but for the entire new troika of leaders, including Clark and Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.). While lawmakers wouldn’t draw direct comparisons to their former head trio, they were endlessly optimistic that the new generation of leaders would usher in a younger, more diverse and unified caucus — the last aspect essential if they want any hope of winning the House majority next year.
“I’m feeling hope and I’m feeling possibility and seeing that we are putting people over politics, but I’m also seeing unity,” said Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio). “I think that it is a new time … that the young people we have in Congress today understand that we all stand on somebody’s shoulders, and the power of us standing together.”
In a similar vein, Democrats are hoping to give members the “tools to be successful in the minority,” as one retreat session advertises — a particularly important lesson for the more than one-third of the caucus that has thus far served only in the majority. The panel will teach House Democrats how to effectively question witnesses in hearings and feature media savvy lawmakers such as Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.).
Rep. Sylvia Garcia (D-Texas) lauded the “hell of a conference” Democrats organized.
“I’ve seen a vast improvement on the panels, in terms of the makeup of the panels and discussions,” she said. “And it’s good to see that [Latino members] were on the stage and we were at the table.”
Equipped with legislative wins from the previous Congress on landmark infrastructure and social spending bills, Democrats are gearing up to sell their message to the American public. They’re determined to avoid total policy irrelevance and are searching for bipartisan wins, even if they’re incremental ones on immigration or energy permitting, both of which sputtered out last term.
“A lot of what we’re going to be doing is implementation of those bills” from last term, said Rep. Ann McLane Kuster (D-N.H.), chair of the centrist New Democrats. “But we won’t hesitate to move forward where we can. So I think we’ll find a way.”
While Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.) expressed pervasive doubts that Congress could agree on “sweeping immigration reform,” he said smaller scale wins to protect so-called Dreamers, immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children, might be possible.
Some turbulence interrupted the caucus’ generally high-spirited retreat. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus were caught off guard when news broke Thursday that President Joe Biden told Senate Democrats he would not veto a Republican-backed measure rolling back changes to D.C.’s criminal code.
“This is news to me, and I’m very disappointed in it,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), when asked by reporters about the measure. “I hope he continues to say he will oppose it.”
But in other areas, Democrats were determined to set aside old feuds and focus on defeating Republicans. In one example, lawmakers made clear they were moving past drama that had engulfed the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, after Chair Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.) sparked backlash over the firing of a top staffer. Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), the second-ranked Hispanic Caucus member, publicly defended Barragán for the first time since the brouhaha.
“First and foremost, the chairwoman has our full, unequivocal support,” he said at a press conference with members of the Hispanic Caucus at the retreat.
Barragán also told reporters she’s working with the other Democratic groups to put out a statement opposing the Biden administration’s proposed tightening of the rules governing asylum for immigrants in the U.S.
And for those policy priorities that can’t be achieved in a divided government, Democrats are readying lists of proposed executive orders to suggest to Biden, including new labor rules to make more workers eligible for overtime pay.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said her group was preparing its “executive action agenda” to present to Biden following their own retreat scheduled for next week. Even as members pressed the White House to act, she indicated they were working in lockstep with the administration.
“We’ve gone through this with the White House,” she said. “Many of the things, not everything, but many of the things on the agenda are things that we know that the White House wants to work with us on.”