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Retreat Targets Economy, Security

In an attempt to sharpen a message that House Democrats hope will help them take back the House in 2004, lawmakers are planning to spend this weekend’s retreat brainstorming almost exclusively on the economy and homeland security.

The tightly focused agenda, coupled with a restructuring of the annual event, is leading to a record number of at least 146 lawmakers (out of 206 House Democrats) who are expected to attend the first retreat under the tutelage of new Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Democratic Caucus Chairman Rep. Bob Menendez (N.J.), who has led the planning of the event, said he wanted to narrow the scope of the getaway to produce the greatest result. Democrats have spent the past few months working on economic and homeland security initiatives.

“This retreat can’t be about everything,” Menendez said. “When it is, it ends up being about nothing.”

The retreat begins Thursday morning and wraps up Saturday afternoon at the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in Pennsylvania. Headlining the three-day event will be former President Bill Clinton, who will address Members on Thursday night and is expected to discuss his strategy for taking back the House.

With Democrats still licking their wounds from the midterm elections, Thursday will also include a panel on the politics of winning that features Mark Gersh, director of the National Committee for an Effective Congress; Rep. Robert Matsui (Calif.), the new chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee; and Ben Jeffers, chairman of the Louisiana Democratic Party.

After that overview of the political landscape, Friday’s focus will turn to plotting the Democratic strategy on the economy and national security. Among the participants on the economy are Gene Sperling, former national economic adviser to Clinton; Julianne Malveaux, president and CEO of Last Word Productions; Ruy Teixeira, a fellow at the Century Foundation; and Anita Dunn, a media consultant and adviser to many lawmakers, including Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.).

During the homeland security portion of the event, Members will hear from Leon Fuerth, former national security adviser to then-Vice President Al Gore; Wendy Sherman, former counselor to the State Department; James Steinberg, former deputy national security adviser to Clinton; Calvin Humphrey, president and CEO of Humphrey International; and James Rubin, the high-profile former spokesman for the State Department.

The retreat will wrap up Saturday with a presentation from several organized labor leaders, including AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.

Menendez said that while the retreat will keep its subject matter limited, the event will not completely ignore other issues. He noted that all other issues play off the key policy matters of the economy and security, including education, the environment or health care.

“We understand that these are two overarching, long-term issues with significant ripple effects to other long-term issues,” he said.

Menendez, elected Caucus chairman in November, decided to structure the retreat with a greater emphasis on Members, doing away with a speech-driven agenda and adding a series of Member-to-Member breakout sessions. While there will be several panel discussions, each will be followed by a leader-led discussion group.

Menendez believes there are several reasons why attendance is expected to increase for the event. Before putting together the agenda for the retreat, Menendez surveyed Members to gauge what they would like to accomplish. He thinks Members now feel they are “stakeholders” in the outcome and are more enthusiastic about participating.

Menendez added that there is a new leadership team with fresh ideas and an approach of “being proactive, not reactive.”

“Normally majorities bring record attendance and participation,” he said. “I think we’re showing we can be competitive.”

And unlike in the past, Menendez said Democrats will also follow up after their retreat with a Caucus meeting to try to put together the findings and create a plan that could lead to a legislative package.

House Democrats already have held separate forums on the economy and homeland security, which helped them craft an economic stimulus plan of their own to counteract the $674 billion plan offered by President Bush.

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