Democrats Huddle For A New Strategy

House Democrats gathered for their annual retreat in Cambridge, Md., and got a pep talk Friday night from President Obama in a closed session. Democrats have a lot of soul-searching to do after a wave of rejection from voters and a new role — as the House minority.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Last weekend, it was the Republicans; this weekend, Democrats gathered to talk policy and strategy for the next two years. President Obama flew to Maryland's Eastern Shore last night to join his party's annual retreat and talk to colleagues about the way forward.

This year, Democrats have a lot on which to reflect after a wave of rejection from voters and a new role as House minority. NPR's Andrea Seabrook is at the retreat and filed this report.

ANDREA SEABROOK: They could have slunked down here to Cambridge, Maryland with their energy sapped and their spirits downtrodden, but the congressmen here says Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer:

Representative STENY HOYER (Democrat, Maryland): Do not have a minority psychology. Their psychology is to act, to promote, to offer solutions to the challenges that confront our country, as we have been doing, and they are working.

SEABROOK: They're just not working fast enough, says Hoyer, hence the theme of Democrats' retreat this year: jobs and the economy. The slogan: make it in America. It's a double entendre. Democrats want people to chase opportunity, make it in America and they want to spark new manufacturing businesses, make it in America.

They hope this idea is something all kinds of people can get behind: conservatives, liberals, businesses and unions. In fact, here at the retreat, both the CEO of the Ford Motor Company and the president of the United Auto Workers spoke - two people who might be opponents on another day - were united around Democrats' manufacturing agenda.

This on the same day that President Obama set up a new council on jobs and competitiveness and named the corporate CEO of GE to head it, Jeffrey Immelt. Assistant Democratic leader Jim Clyburn called these moves great strives forward.

Representative JIM CLYBURN (Democrat, South Carolina): I think that signals a tremendous new direction for the economy of this country. We are going to see a surge in the jobs created in this country and I think the appointment of Jeff Immelt signals that.

SEABROOK: Now, of course, the news out of the Democrats' retreat is pretty tightly controlled, but outside of the official press conferences and message memos, rank and file lawmakers say there's a lot of soul searching going on. Democrats are poring over election maps, reading deep into polls and questioning analysts trying to understand as clearly as they can why they lost so hard in November.

They've heard from panels, says Missouri's Emanuel Cleaver, made up of lawmakers who only barely reclaim their seats.

Representative EMANUEL CLEAVER (Democrat, Missouri): We've even had members who lost, who came in and told us why they lost, including the congressmen from this district.

SEABROOK: And in their strategy sessions for the coming year, and especially when it comes to health care, Cleaver says it's not all high-minded planning. There's a healthy dose of realism.

Mr. CLEAVER: I'm probably not supposed to say this. I think I'm supposed say: We're still going to push and get this and that and this. The truth of the matter is they will seek to defund; we will work to defend.

SEABROOK: Hard defense - and then there's the red meat. Forget philosophy and agendas and policies and what you're left with is pure politics. New York Steve Israel is the head of the new Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. That's the organization in charge of getting Democrats elected. And he's already out there playing offense.

Israel says Republicans have only been in power for a couple of weeks and they're already showing their real priorities.

Mr. STEVE ISRAEL (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee): They promised they would create jobs and instead they say we're going to repeal health care. They only jobs they created were for press secretaries to draft press releases on repeal of health care that was not going to happen because the Senate and the president won't support it.

SEABROOK: Israel says he will keep calling Republicans' fouls 'til he convinces voters that they should put Democrats back in charge of the House.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, Cambridge, Maryland.

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