Obama Tries To Rally House Democrats At Annual Retreat

President Obama addressed the House Democrats' retreat in Leesburg, Va., on Thursday to rally his troops ahead of a number of contentious issues. Audie Cornish talks to Tamara Keith.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

President Obama took a short helicopter flight earlier today to Leesburg, Virginia. That's where House Democrats are holding their annual retreat. The president gave a short speech and then took questions from lawmakers. And his message: There's a lot of work to do. The Democrats are, of course, the minority party in the House, so how much work they can do is not clear.

NPR's Tamara Keith is at the retreat in Leesburg and she joins us now. And, Tamara, I mean, this is basically a pep rally, right? Or was there more to the president's message?

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Oh, it was totally a pep rally, right down to the introduction where Congressman Xavier Becerra called him the captain of the Democrats' team. And then there was applause and the president came in.

He talked about things that he's talked about before, about prioritizing job creation and creating an economy that works for everyone, talked about education, got very passionate when talking about the sequester, those automatic spending cuts that are supposed to hit.

He feels that Democrats are in a stronger position there than Republicans. And then, he talked about immigration reform and reducing gun violence. And he said that particularly on those two issues that he knows that there are what he euphemistically called regional differences, that some Democrats are going to have a hard time getting on board with what he's asking for.

Those are Democrats in conservative districts. And this is more of an issue in the Senate than in the House, but there are certainly House members who can't get on board with what he's asking for.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The bottom line is this, people. We've got a lot of work to do. What we've learned over the last four years - at least what I've learned over the last four years is that it won't be smooth. It won't be simple. There will be frustrations. There will be times where you guys are mad at me and I'll occasionally read about it.

KEITH: That was a joke, but also a dig.

CORNISH: The House Democrats, of course, they don't have procedural rights that the minority has in the Senate, so they've got this uphill battle, even on things like guns and immigration.

KEITH: Absolutely. And they don't have much of a position to do much about it. So, this afternoon, they came and held a press conference about their 15 principles on gun violence prevention. And this included non-controversial items, but then they also talked about wanting universal background checks, which have gotten sort of controversial, and things like banning large ammunition magazines or calling for a strengthened assault weapons ban.

And there's a growing political consensus that the assault weapons ban is just not going to be politically possible in the Senate and especially in the House, where Republicans just won't bring it up. But Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she's not going to give up.

REPRESENTATIVE NANCY PELOSI: I think we should move as boldly as possible and see where we come out rather than throwing in the towel on something that has no justification.

KEITH: And in reality, what she did just there, making sort of a passionate plea, that's about all she can do because Democrats are in the minority in the House.

CORNISH: So these House Democrats have the president's ear. I mean, what kind of questions did they put to them?

KEITH: You know, it's interesting. We were kicked out of the room before the questions were asked, so we had to sort of run around and ask members afterwards what they asked about. And, you know, you would think that the questions would include gun control or the sequester, but instead there was a real strong focus on climate change.

Apparently, there were three questions on climate change. And the president apparently said that he feels it's a very big, important issue. Obviously, he does because he talked about it in his inaugural address. But he also said that they can't do everything at once and that immigration has to come first and dealing with the sequester and budget issues and gun control. So it seemed like he was preparing Democrats to have patience on that one.

CORNISH: Tamara, thank you.

KEITH: Thank you.

CORNISH: NPR's Tamara Keith, speaking with us from Leesburg, Virginia, where House Democrats are holding their annual retreat.

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