Reid tries to unite Senate Dem caucus

Senate Democrats will huddle behind closed doors on Tuesday and Wednesday as they seek to mend divisions within their caucus on gun control, immigration reform and taxes.

The retreat at the Westin Annapolis comes at a critical time, with Senate Democrats preparing to do battle on issues that have splintered them in the past. They will meet with President Obama on Wednesday to coordinate strategy.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) wants to achieve as much unity as possible to boost his negotiating leverage against Republicans. He knows he’ll suffer defections, but infighting must be kept to a minimum to move Obama’s agenda through Congress.

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“What the Democrats have to do is find common ground in their own party, No. 1, or recognize there will be some issues where you won’t get the whole caucus,” said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist. “Once they find that common ground, they need to see how far they can get with the Republicans.”

A Democratic aide familiar with the agenda for the retreat said immigration reform, gun violence and finding a way to pay for the automatic spending sequester would be the main topics of conversation. Sequestration will be addressed as part of a broader discussion about tax and entitlement reform, according to a senior Democratic aide. 

Senate Democrats feel they are in a better position than they were two years ago, when they held a multiday retreat at the Boar’s Head Inn. Then, Democrats had just suffered what Obama later acknowledged was a “shellacking” in the 2010 midterm elections and were scrambling to regroup.

Democrats now feel emboldened to seize the strategic initiative in Congress. Obama’s popularity has rebounded and the party has expanded its Senate majority, adding pressure on the GOP to bend to its will. 

But unity will be necessary for legislative success.

“Their ability to stay together through the tax fight, their ability to stay together through a decent number of fights, served them well,” said Rodell Mollineau, a former senior adviser to Reid.

“This gives them an opportunity to reflect on what they’ve done and what can be accomplished,” he added. “There is a path forward on immigration and there are changes to be made on gun policy. They have to understand they’re not on the defense. On many of these issues, they have the upper hand.”

Political strategy will be an important topic of the retreat. Senators will receive a briefing from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee about the 2014 electoral map, and senators who won reelection in 2012 are expected to talk about their lessons learned, according to a Democratic aide.

Immigration will be another major point of discussion. The question of how to deal with guest workers split Senate Democrats when they last debated comprehensive reform in 2007.

Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the Democrats’ point man on immigration, acknowledged last week that the future flow of immigrant workers would be a thorny issue, and blamed it for scuttling the immigration reform effort six years ago.

Then, 15 Democrats and Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), a liberal independent, voted against moving to a final vote on comprehensive immigration reform. Eleven of the 16 are still in the Senate. Many of the Democrats who voted to block the legislation had a problem with its establishment of a guest worker program.

There are signs the political calculus has changed for Democrats. The AFL-CIO is negotiating with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to find a compromise that would balance businesses’ need to hire the immigrant labor with worker protections.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a staunch labor ally who voted to block the 2007 package, called for immigration reform last week.

“It’s past time that we undertake comprehensive immigration reform that provides a path to citizenship with fair and rigorous requirements, builds American economic prosperity, secures our borders, and imposes tough sanctions on employers who break the law,” Brown said in a statement.

Gun-violence legislation is another divisive issue on the Democratic agenda.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) proposal to ban military-style semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips has fallen well short of universal support in the Democratic Caucus.

Democrats facing 2014 reelection races in states that were carried by Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race, including Sens. Mark Begich (Alaska), Max Baucus (Mont.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.), have balked at her proposals to ban weapons and ammunition.

Even Reid, who helped kill an effort to reinstate the federal assault weapons ban in 2009, declined to endorse Feinstein’s proposal, which has strong support from the second- and third-ranking members of the leadership: Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Schumer.

Instead of pushing reluctant centrists to support bans on weapons, the Senate Democratic leadership will try to build consensus in its caucus for background checks and regulations to crack down on interstate trafficking.

Finding a way to pay for the sequester is another troublesome issue. In an interview with ABC’s “This Week,” Reid said the cost of turning off the automatic spending cuts — an idea that many Democrats and Republicans loathe — could be paid for by ending tax breaks for oil-and-gas companies.

But that proposal has spurred vehement opposition from some Democrats.

Begich, who is up for reelection in 2014, warned two years ago that ending federal subsidies for the oil-and-gas industry “would cost thousands of jobs in Alaska and across the country.”

“Energy companies are among the businesses investing and creating jobs at a time when our country needs both,” he said in February of 2011. “I will fight any measure that ends these incentives.” 

Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.), another Democrat running for reelection in a red state, fought against closing tax breaks for oil-and-gas companies.

“It will actually hurt job production in the United States,” she said. “This will not reduce gasoline prices. So why are we doing it? Will it create jobs? No. It will actually hurt job production in the United States.”