By Mike Lillis - 02/12/14 07:53 PM EST
CAMBRIDGE, MD – House Democratic leaders are doubling down on their economic message for the election year, increasingly hopeful that it will reverberate with voters at the polls in November.
Beginning their annual issues conference on the Eastern Shore, the Democrats are trumpeting their calls to adopt policies like immigration reform, an extension of unemployment benefits and an increase in minimum wage – issues that poll well but have been rejected by the Republican-controlled House.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) piled on, arguing that the Democrats' economic platform would address what she characterized as the country's growing "opportunity gap" – a problem the Democrats accuse Republicans of ignoring.
"The difference … in our approach is that we understand that the American people are not fully participating in the prosperity that some are enjoying in our country – not any part of it," she said. "We understand; the Republicans are indifferent."
They have a tough road ahead. To win back the House, the Democrats would need to pick up 17 seats in November – a high barrier in a mid-term cycle with a lame-duck president whose approval rating has fallen below 50 percent.
Still, the Democrats are hoping their continued emphasis on specific economic policy proposals will both pressure GOP leaders to consider them on the floor and draw clear lines of distinction between the parties when it comes to bolstering the working class.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee said the Democrats are fully poised to use the Republicans' inaction on those issues as campaign-trail fodder.
"These are all concrete actions that could be taken immediately if the Speaker of the House would let us have a vote. That's our preference," Van Hollen said of the Democrats' economic agenda. "If he doesn't let us have a vote, we're going to make it clear that within 100 hours of a new Congress where we had a majority, we will do these specific things.
"That's important that the public recognize that these are concrete, practical steps that can be taken, not just some theoretical partisan dispute," Van Hollen added.
The Democrats are coming off of a big legislative victory in the form of a "clean" debt ceiling bill, which House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) reluctantly brought to the floor Tuesday after failing to rally his restive conference around GOP amendments.
Democrats, who have pushed for years for a clean debt-limit bill, were encouraged by Boehner's move, though they're not optimistic it marks a new era of bipartisan cooperation.
"We hope that this is a watershed moment, that more will come from this," said Rep. Joe Crowley (N.Y.), vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "But I'm not holding my breath."
To launch the issues conference, the Democrats heard a welcoming address from Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley, who's among the Democrats being mentioned as a possible 2016 presidential contender.
On Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden will address the Caucus, and President Obama will be in Cambridge on Friday.