Obama presses Senate Dems on priorities

President Obama looked to rally Senate Democrats around his economic agenda during his appearance at their annual retreat on Wednesday, pressing lawmakers to coordinate the party's messaging and strategy on priorities outlined in his State of the Union address last week.

Obama stressed "the importance of increasing the minimum wage to $10.10, ensuring women get equal pay for equal work, putting Americans back to work by strengthening the manufacturing sector, and expanding and improving educational opportunity and job-training" during the meeting, the White House said in a statement.

The president met with the lawmakers for more than an hour and a half in a closed-door session, held at the Washington Nationals' baseball stadium.

Obama brought with him a cadre of top aides with deep Hill experience — chief of staff Denis McDonough, legislative affairs director Katie Beirne Fallon and counselor John Podesta. Former President Clinton also was slated to appear.

The meeting comes amid some recent, high-profile policy splits between the president and lawmakers in the upper chamber that appeared to underscore lingering tension between the two sides of Pennsylvania Avenue.

ADVERTISEMENT
In recent weeks, Democratic senators have publicly broke with the White House over a desired fast-track trade agreement, the administration's handling of the Keystone XL pipeline and additional sanctions on Iran.

Wednesday's meeting included "some discussion of trade" but "no arguments," a source in the room told The Washington Post.

But the retreat also comes amid deepening concern within the party's ranks about the looming midterm elections, where Democrats face difficult odds if they hope to keep control of the Senate and gain seats in the House.

"He's the head of his party. Of course it's on his mind," White House press secretary Jay Carney said of Obama.

Democrats are defending 21 of the 36 Senate seats up for election this fall, and election watchers widely expect the party to lose seats. Democrats in red states like South Dakota, West Virginia and Montana have retired, and Sens. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) are facing tough races.

The president "emphasized one of his top priorities this year is keeping the Senate," said one source familiar with the conversation.

Some of those vulnerable lawmakers have opted against traveling with Obama to recent events in their home states, signaling that the president's ability to benefit his congressional allies remains limited after a series of political missteps last year. Others have explicitly attempted to distance themselves from the president.

"I want him up in Alaska, so I can show him where his policies haven't worked," Begich told The Associated Press earlier this week. "I'll drag him up there to show him what he needs to be doing. I don't need him campaigning for me."

The White House declined to respond specifically to Begich's comments on Wednesday, saying simply that Obama would "be actively involved in assisting Democrats up for reelection or running for office in the Senate and the House."

"He'll be doing everything he can to assist Democrats, as he already has," Carney said.

On Monday, Obama met privately with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and DSCC Executive Director Guy Cecil at the Oval Office. Democratic sources familiar with the meeting said it focused primarily on election strategy and fundraising efforts.

Obama has also been meeting with House Democrats, who have concerns of their own. The Post reported that during a roundtable discussion at the White House on Tuesday, Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.) told Obama someone should be fired for the botched rollout last year of his signature healthcare legislation.

Obama will meet with House Democrats again next week at their own retreat, on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Concern over ObamaCare has only increased after the release this week of a Congressional Budget Office report that found that the law would result in the loss of a 2 million workers in the labor supply. 

Former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe downplayed the congressional anxiety in an interview with ABC News, after acknowledging that Democrats had entered the "bed-wetting" part of campaign season. 

"There will be 10 more moments, at least, that will be declared to be decisive moments that will determine the 2014 election,” Plouffe said. “And none of them will be.”

— This post was updated at 6:17 p.m.