House Dems vent frustrations over strategy to Obama

House Democrats' frustration with what they feel is an under-appreciative White House blew into the open Wednesday.

Democrats have been boiling for four days over comments by White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, who suggested his party could lose control of the House this fall.

Irritation with the spokesman’s foray into political prognostication have exposed tensions between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue that is centered on the feeling among some House lawmakers that the White House has not given the lower chamber due credit for an unprecedented string of accomplishments.

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The House has approved a controversial healthcare overhaul and tackled difficult votes on climate change and financial regulatory reform, only to see legislation languish for months in the Senate.

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More broadly, some Democrats complain, the White House has not made an aggressive enough push to keep the House in Democratic hands this fall.

“It was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” one Democratic campaign strategist working on 2010 elections said of Gibbs’s comments.

Lawmakers in the lower chamber have taken note that the president has held many more fundraising and campaign events for Senate candidates than House candidates. During the recent July 4 recess alone, one campaign aide pointed out, the president stumped for two Senate candidates — Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada and Robin Carnahan in Missouri — but did nothing for House candidates.

“There has been less of a focus on House Democrats and what we’re trying to do here and on our electoral prospects than on the Senate,” one Democratic aide said.

“The end result is a sense by some members that they’re being ignored,” the aide said.

House Democrats planned to vent their frustrations with the White House’s political strategy during a Wednesday meeting with President Obama.

While Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democratic leaders want to move on from the flap, the speaker, as leader of House Democrats, has a responsibility to take their concerns to the White House, the aide said.

“She had to stand up and fight for them,” the aide said.

Rank-and-file members were outraged over the comments from Gibbs, who told “Meet the Press” the GOP was within “striking distance” of winning the House given the number of seats in play.

“I think he’s wrong. He clearly hasn’t evaluated or examined our House races,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said. “We’re not going to lose the House. You can use mathematics to look at anything, and politically our members are in very good shape, and I think we’re going to have a better-than-average election cycle.”

Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) said the White House and House Democrats were plainly not on the same page.

He said Gibbs was “off the wall” in his statement on NBC. “That was something that should have been said to the caucus and not glibly stated on national television on Sunday,” Pascrell said.

“If the administration is trying to tell us ‘stay away from us with an arm’s length,’ they did a good job. We don’t need a wake-up call. The White House needs a wake-up call on the politics of these issues.”

Democratic leaders have publicly downplayed the Gibbs comments as merely stating an obvious fact, but Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) on Wednesday also suggested the White House press secretary should have known better.

“People need to be aware of how their comments will be interpreted in a political environment,” he said.

Asked if Gibbs had misspoken, Van Hollen replied: “I’m just saying people need to be aware of how their comments will be interpreted in a political environment. Many people interpret that to mean that the Democrats will lose the House when he himself has been very clear that that is not the case and he does not believe that.”

Democrats were particularly frustrated at the timing of the Gibbs statement, coming as the party felt it had forced Republicans onto the defensive by highlighting gaffes by House GOP leader John Boehner (Ohio), who compared the financial meltdown to an “ant,” and Rep. Joe Barton (Texas), who apologized to BP CEO Tony Hayward at a congressional hearing.

They also want more help from Obama on the campaign trail. While it is clear that the president could not be helpful to some vulnerable Democrats who hail from conservative districts where Obama is unpopular, there are several districts where Obama is wanted, the Democratic campaign strategist said.

The message to the president: Come visit where you can, and send money where you can’t.

The strategist mentioned Rep. Steve Driehaus’s district in Ohio, where the congressman was helped in 2008 by first-time Obama voters, as well as races in the president’s home states of Illinois and Hawaii. “It’s a question of actions,” the strategist said. “There’s an onus on [the White House] to do more.”

House Democrats aired their grievances with the White House to an Obama staffer Tuesday night during a closed caucus meeting.

Pelosi confronted that White House aide, Dan Turton, after her members lashed out at Gibbs for undermining the party’s electoral chances and handing a talking point to Republicans during his appearance on “Meet the Press.”

 At the White House on Wednesday, Gibbs described his relationship with Pelosi as “cordial.”

“Of course the opinion of the Speaker of the House matters to me,” he said. “It matters to Democrats throughout this country.”

Heaping praise on Pelosi, Gibbs added: “The work that the House and the Speaker have done over the past 18 months in making tough choices and making tough votes and in passing the agenda of this president have — have been monumental.”


Jordan Fabian contributed reporting.

This story was originally posted at 1:38 p.m. and updated at 8:37 p.m.


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