Obama schmoozes Dems at retreat

President Obama launched a charm offensive on Senate Democrats at their retreat Wednesday in Annapolis, Md., seeking to shore up his allies as they push his agenda.

Obama spent more than two hours with upper chamber Democrats and let them direct much of the day’s agenda, according to sources who attended the closed-door event.

After delivering a brief statement, Obama answered questions from the assembled Democrats for an hour before spending another hour working the room, shaking hands and having more intimate discussions with members of the Senate majority.

It was quite a show from a president often criticized as being aloof with Congress and uninterested in reaching out even to his friends. Democratic lawmakers grumbled throughout Obama’s first term that he did not spend enough time with them on the phone or in person, and Obama on Wednesday seemed intent on changing those views.

For many lawmakers hungry for the president’s attention and sometimes frustrated when they don’t get it, the schmooze session served as an icebreaker to begin the new Congress.

“It was very cordial, polite and warm,” a Senate Democratic source said. “It certainly made our folks happy to be able to spend some time with him.”

Obama will continue the outreach Thursday when he visits the House Democrats’ retreat in Leesburg, Va. Vice President Biden was scheduled to meet with House Democrats on Wednesday evening.

The effort coincides with Obama seeking to capitalize on his political momentum with an overhaul of the nation’s immigration policies, new restrictions on guns and a replacement for the $85 billion in spending cuts set to kick in on March 1. 

Yet some Democrats have begun to show division in their ranks, which could pose a problem for Obama, who will depend on the Senate to enact his agenda. 

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) may hold up John Brennan’s nomination to be director of the CIA unless he gets more information from the administration about its legal rationale for using drones to kill suspected terrorists.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who caucuses with Democrats, has vowed to oppose any deficit-reduction plan that would use the “chained CPI” formula to cut Social Security benefits. Obama proposed the chained-CPI reform in negotiations with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) last Congress and on Tuesday said those offers are on the table in talks to replace the sequester.

Democrats representing largely rural states have also expressed reservations about Obama’s gun-control proposals.

Still, after two years of playing defense against House Republican efforts to slash spending, Obama and Senate Democrats are ready to go on offense.

Obama praised recent progress on immigration reform made by the Senate’s Gang of Eight, which includes Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). He wants Democrats to support the effort despite past concerns among liberals and labor unions about programs for bringing immigrant workers to the country on a temporary basis.

In a briefing for reporters Wednesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama would note the “significant progress made with the participation of Senate Democrats towards a bipartisan piece of legislation.”  

Obama cajoled Democrats to support new gun-control measures despite strong reservations from centrists running for reelection in rural states, such as Sens. Mark Begich (Alaska), Tim Johnson (S.D.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.).

“He understands that these issues are difficult, that achieving them will not be easy, but he is committed to pressing forward on them and to enlisting the support of lawmakers in both the House and the Senate of both parties in the effort,” Carney said.

Senate Democrats spent much of the retreat, which began on Tuesday, discussing a way to stop the $85 billion sequester.

Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) discussed the sequester in a presentation on fiscal policy.

Murray talked about her strategy for the budget and why it would be important for Democrats to pass a budget resolution this year, something they have not done since 2009. She also discussed the continuing resolution funding government, which is due to expire at the end of March, and the debt limit, according to a Democratic source familiar with the presentation.

Mikulski discussed the importance of replacing the sequester and gave examples of what would happen if the across-the-board cuts went forward. She also made a plea for a return to regular order in the appropriations process. She stressed the importance of passing appropriations bills to implement policy and funding formula changes instead of simply passing stopgap spending measures to keep the government running status quo.

Baucus spoke about the sequester, the debt ceiling and tax reform. He has emphasized the importance of reforming the tax code in a methodical way through the Finance Committee. He has warned against a rushed effort to partially reform the tax code to raise revenues to offset the sequester.

“When it comes to tax reform, we must avoid the urge for the quick fix,” Baucus said in a statement Tuesday after Obama called on Congress to pay for the cuts with an even balance of tax increases and spending cuts.

“We owe it to the American people to do a comprehensive review of the code to ensure it works for today’s economy and is flexible enough to adapt to the changing world.”

The White House has focused on tax reform primarily as a vehicle for raising revenues to pay down the deficit.

Baucus has pushed back somewhat in an attempt to broaden that perception.

“Tax reform is about more than revenues.  It is about simplifying people’s lives, encouraging businesses to invest and grow, and boosting innovation and education,” he said.