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Democratic Retreat Has a New Focus

When House Democrats convene in Williamsburg, Va., this week for their annual retreat, the dominant topic of discussion will be one they haven’t had to deal with for more than a decade — how to govern.

“It takes on a great new meaning,” Rep. José Serrano (N.Y.), one of the Democrats’ newly appointed Appropriations subcommittee chairmen, said of the party’s first retreat as the House majority in a dozen years.

The New York lawmaker said Democrats will concentrate in large part on how to manage the House, noting that while the new majority has moved ahead with its legislative package in the initial weeks of the 110th Congress, much of the agenda and basic style of governance have yet to be determined.

“It would be foolish to say it’s all been figured out,” Serrano acknowledged.

Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (Md.) echoed those expectations, stating: “We need to discuss what our agenda is going to be now that we’re in the majority.”

That focus offers a shift from recent years, when Democrats largely had focused their retreat on strategy, noted one former senior Democratic aide.

“There is more of a governing component than in the past. … In the past it’s been more message and strategy,” the former aide said.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.), who will lead one of the retreat’s panels, said he will focus on how the Democratic Caucus can build on the momentum of its initial “100 hours” agenda — a package of legislation, ranging from an increase in the federal minimum wage to stem-cell research, touted by Democrats during the November elections that the House completed earlier this month.

“We need to continue to be the party of change. We can’t become the party of the status quo,” Van Hollen said of the message he will deliver to his colleagues Thursday.

In addition, Democratic lawmakers stressed that the retreat will give significant attention to the 42 freshman Members, and in particular, Van Hollen said he will concentrate on constituent services and communication with their districts.

Ruppersberger also noted that the retreat will allow Members to become better acquainted with their new colleagues. “You have a lot more people with different philosophies,” he said of the expanded 233-member majority.

During the three-day session, Van Hollen said he also will give attention to voter outreach, particularly to those constituents who are not politically active, by offering “strategies for reaching voters who have a lot of other things on their minds.”

Democrats also are expected to address agenda topics such as health care and energy, and House Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.) is slated to lead a panel discussion on faith and politics.

While the South Carolina lawmaker, who chairs the Democrats’ Faith Working Group, has organized similar panels in previous years, a spokeswoman noted that as with the rest of the retreat, the Democrats’ new status will be reflected in the dialogue.

“It’s a matter of enhancing those relationships, moving to the next step and bringing more Members into the fold of the Faith Working Group,” said Clyburn spokeswoman Kristie Greco. “They’ll have the opportunity to recognize that they’ve made progress, and can continue to build upon that progress.”

Both President Bush and former President Bill Clinton also are scheduled to attend the weekend retreat, addressing the Caucus on Saturday and Thursday, respectively.

While Democrats are slated to participate in a limited question-and-answer session with Bush following his address to the Caucus, at least one lawmaker suggested that the session, which is expected to be closed to the media, could offer some unscripted moments as Members seek to discuss both the Iraq War as well as the broader war on terrorism.

“This may be one of those times when Members get up and tell the president exactly what they think,” said one Democratic lawmaker, who asked not to be identified.

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