CT lawmakers in Philly to help reshape party, press agendas

Philadelphia –President Obama met a generally friendly crowd when he spoke to  House Democrats at their retreat in Philadelphia Thursday evening, but not every lawmaker, including some Connecticut Democrats, is completely aboard with the agenda he’s promoting.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, has become a leading opponent of a new trade pact with Pacific Rim nations Obama wants to push through Congress. Meanwhile, Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, is critical of what he views as the president, and his party’s, new focus on a “middle class economy.”

There is strong support for Obama’s new initiatives, which he will include in the budget for 2016 he will release next week. They include free community college for students who qualify,  new programs for child care, and paid sick leave.

Obama also called for an end to across-the-board spending cuts and will not include them in his budget. That was embraced by Connecticut lawmakers.

“Let’s make sure we end the sequester,” Obama said. “It doesn’t differentiate between smart government cuts and dumb government cuts.”

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said an end to the sequester, imposed in 2013 as part of a budget deal, “is exactly the kind of solution we need” to solve federal budget problems.

“Sequestration has reinforced the cycle of manufactured crises in Washington, imposing indiscriminate cuts on critical programs — everything from defense priorities to heating and nutrition assistance for families — and impairing our full economic recovery,” Courtney said.

The president also renewed threats to veto GOP bills that would repeal the Affordable Care Act, roll back regulations on banks or compound issues regarding “the broken immigration system.”

Every member of Connecticut’s delegation to the House of Representatives, all Democrats, are in Philadelphia for a two-day retreat to try to re-energize the party after last fall’s electoral losses — and to promote their own priorities.

Obama steered clear of mentioning his proposed trade agreement with Pacific Rim nations in his speech  — a proposal that has divided his party and propelled DeLauro into a high-profile standoff with the president on the  Trans-Pacific Partnership.

But earlier on Thursday White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said he expected the issue to be raised by lawmakers in a question and answer session with Obama that was held behind closed doors after the speech.

DeLauro objects to giving the president “fast-track” authority to negotiate the deal. Fast-tracking the treaty would not allow Congress to amend it, only to vote up or down on the deal.

DeLauro led a panel discussion Thursday morning entitled, “Are Trade Agreements Good or Bad for Jobs and Wages?”

To her, the answer is clear. She says the TPP and other trade deals result in the loss of jobs that migrate overseas, depressed wages for American workers and the erosion of food safety and environmental protections.

Supporters of the TPP said it would expand markets for U.S. goods by knocking down trade barriers.

DeLauro said her session on trade featured a balanced panel that included both trade pact supporters and opponents.

She said there is a need to determine the impacts of past trade agreements on the U.S. economy and U.S. policy.

“I think we need to debate and provide information for the people,” she said.  As far as her high-profile dispute with the president on the trade pact goes, DeLauro said, “We don’t have to agree 100 percent on everything.”

Many Republicans support the TPP, but Obama will need Democratic votes to replace those of GOP lawmakers who don’t want to back the president.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said at the retreat she is uncommitted on the issue, noting there are Democrats with deep concerns about the trade pact.

But Pelosi said, “We’d like to see a path to yes.”  DeLauro, however, predicted her House Democratic colleagues would vote against the TPP.

Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, is also pursuing a priority in Philadelphia. As vice chairman of the Congressional Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, she participated in a panel entitled “Gun Violence Prevention: Why it is an important issue for Democrats.”

Esty said the forum discussed the significance of a ballot initiative in Washington state that would expand background checks to include gun shows and private firearm sales. Similar laws have been passed in Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland and elsewhere, but attempts to expand background checks have failed in Congress.

Esty said the focus of gun-rights activists is shifting to the states, but lawmakers like her are not done trying to change federal gun laws, despite an unfavorable political climate on Capitol Hill.

“We are not giving up,” she said.

A strategy this year is to introduce several pieces of legislation, including the reintroduction of the legislation that would expand background checks and forbid “straw” purchases — purchases of guns on behalf of felons or others who are barred from owning firearms under federal law. Another tact, which might win enough GOP support to become law, Esty said, is to remove firearms from those accused of committing domestic violence.

“Those situations are unbelievably volatile,” she said.

Himes not on message

House Democrats have gathered in Philadelphia to regroup after a brutal thrashing in last year’s elections, which shrank their numbers to 188 in the 435-member chamber.

Democratic leaders agreed that their messaging was too diffused during last year’s elections and must be more focused.

“There’s been a lot of talk about how Democrats need a message,” said Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., the leader of his party’s messaging team. “It’s not that we need a message, it’s that we need a lot less message.”

Esty agrees. “We’re in a world with a whole lot of noise and a whole lot of messaging,” she said. “We need to define the Democratic message.”

So, like Obama, House Democrats have turned to “middle-class issues” and jobs. The theme of the retreat is “Grow America’s Economy, Grow American Paychecks.”

“We know things have improved, but we know things can be better,” said Rep. Javier Becerra, D-Calif.

Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who holds the second-highest position in the House Democratic leadership, said “middle-class wages are stuck in the mud.”

Moderate Democrats, like Himes, are pushing back against his party’s new campaign.

“I personally am not a big fan of the phrase ‘middle-class economics.’ That’s something you take in third period of sophomore year of high school,” Himes, a leader of the centrist New Democrat Coalition, told the Roll Call newspaper.

He said “opportunity” should be the new buzzword for Democrats. “We should facilitate opportunity at every level.”

Sticking point

Anther sticking point for some Democrats – and nearly all Republicans – is that Obama plans to offset the sequester and pay for other new programs by ending certain tax breaks that benefit the wealthy.

Republicans say they want an end to the sequester, but want to eliminate it through cuts to social programs, not tax hikes.

Besides the chance to attend panels on “Sharpening Your Media Skills,” and “Becoming a Q and A Ninja: Proven Techniques for Fielding Difficult Questions,” there is also some down time in the conference schedule, allowing lawmakers to visit Philadelphia’s historic sites or attend a tasting of Pennsylvania wines.

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