An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi were the only Democrats to address a meeting Tuesday night. The story has been corrected to note that other Democrats also spoke at the meeting.
House Democrats hit boiling point over perceived lack of White House support
Thursday, July 15, 2010
House Democrats are lashing out at the White House, venting long-suppressed anger over what they see as President Obama's lukewarm efforts to help them win reelection -- and accusing administration officials of undermining the party's chances of retaining the majority in November's midterm elections.
In recent weeks, a widespread belief has taken hold among Democratic House members that they have dutifully gone along with the White House on politically risky issues -- including the stimulus plan, the health-care overhaul and climate change -- without seeing much, if anything, in return. Many of them are angry that Obama has actively campaigned for Democratic Senate candidates but has done fewer events for House members.
The boiling point came Tuesday night during a closed-door meeting of House Democrats in the Capitol. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) excoriated White House press secretary Robert Gibbs's public comments over the weekend that the House majority was in doubt and that it would take "strong campaigns by Democrats" to avert dramatic losses.
"What the hell do they think we've been doing the last 12 months? We're the ones who have been taking the tough votes," Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (N.J.) said in an interview Wednesday.
Attempting to quell the uprising, Obama met privately with House Democratic leaders Wednesday evening to reassure them of his support. Aides said the meeting went well and focused on the agenda in the run-up to the elections.
Before the meeting, Gibbs sought to play down the tensions, describing his relationship with Pelosi as "cordial." He stood by his earlier remarks that the House could flip to the Republicans but again expressed confidence that Democrats would retain control. Another Democratic official, familiar with White House strategy, said that there is a "misperception" among House Democrats that Obama, a former senator, favors his old chamber over the House. The official placed the blame largely on polling data that continue to show the president and Congress in poor shape.
Though politically provocative, Gibbs's comments -- first on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday and again at his regular briefing Monday -- were largely seen as accurate in Washington. Analysts estimate that about 60 Democratic House seats are in jeopardy; Republicans need a net gain of 39 to claim the majority. But the press secretary's public airing of the dire situation reinforced the feeling among House Democrats that Obama's priority is building a firewall around the Senate majority.
"What they wanted to do is separate themselves from us," Pascrell said Wednesday. He accused the White House of wanting to preemptively pin the blame on lawmakers running poor campaigns should Democrats lose the majority and not on Obama's own sagging approval ratings.
At the Tuesday night meeting with Pelosi, lawmakers groused that the White House was taking them for granted. Pascrell was especially vocal and punctuated his complaints by reading Gibbs's comments word for word in front of the caucus. After he spoke, Pelosi interjected. "I disagree on one point -- I think you were too kind to Mr. Gibbs," she said, according to Democrats familiar with her comments. Publicly, the speaker and other members of the leadership have distanced themselves from Pascrell's view that Gibbs's remarks were part of a White House plan.
Pascrell and Pelosi were the most vocal in their direct, blunt criticism of the White House. But interviews with more than 10 lawmakers and senior aides, from liberal and conservative districts, made it clear that scores of House Democrats at the gathering shared Pascrell's and Pelosi's dissatisfaction. Most of those interviewed did not want to be quoted by name criticizing the president.