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Democrats see laws they passed last year as route back to majority

Biden kicks off party’s House retreat, as conservatives stage their own meeting in another part of Maryland

President Joe Biden holds up a sign for a project funded by a bipartisan infrastructure law he enacted as he delivers the keynote speech at the House Democrats 2023 Issues Conference in Baltimore on Wednesday.
President Joe Biden holds up a sign for a project funded by a bipartisan infrastructure law he enacted as he delivers the keynote speech at the House Democrats 2023 Issues Conference in Baltimore on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

BALTIMORE — Without the agenda-setting power of the majority, House Democrats were huddling with President Joe Biden and a slew of administration officials to focus on implementing laws they passed with one-party control of the last Congress.

The House Democrats 2023 Issues Conference that runs through the end of the week also includes discussions about how to make sure voters know about what they did, as they focus on taking back the speaker’s gavel in 2024. Appearing Wednesday evening, Biden thanked the lawmakers for the unity they showed in the prior Congress.

“Working together, we made historic progress toward that vision of building from the middle out and the bottom up,” Biden said. “Where the hell is it written that we can’t lead the world in manufacturing again? I don’t buy it. I don’t buy it.”

Biden brought a prop, a sample of a sign bearing his name and the name of the new Frederick Douglass rail tunnel that is being built just down the road, as just one example of the projects that will become reality as part of the legislative agenda of his first two years.

“We’re going to bring together every element of the federal government, we’re going to invest wisely and quickly through a process that will attract more private sector investment as well,” the president said. “We’ve gone so far to print signs, as indicated, and let people know what — who’s bringing in this project.”

​The president’s remarks came after a speech to the assembled lawmakers from Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, who was elected to succeed a two-term Republican governor in November. Moore called out GOP opposition to raising the debt limit.

“That’s not patriotic. That is irresponsible and that is reckless,” he said.

Moore spoke about the benefits for the Old Line State from legislation enacted by Democrats in the last Congress, including the infrastructure law funding for the Frederick Douglass rail tunnel.

Moore proved a popular speaker among the attendees at the Inner Harbor conference, with House Democratic Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar advising Moore that he needed to end a selfie line in order to get to the president.

Democrats opened the meeting with a news conference laying out their goals.

“We run to win, we win to govern, we govern to make life better for everyday Americans, and we’ve done that in an extraordinary way with the legislative agenda that we’ve been able to get over the finish line in the last Congress,” Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries told reporters. “And now we’re working together to make sure that we bring those legislative accomplishments to life for every single American that we are privileged to represent across the country.”

Despite what Jeffries saw as wins in the last Congress, House Democrats lost a net nine seats to Republicans last year, with the biggest losses — four seats, when one lost to reapportionment is counted — coming in the minority leader’s home state of New York.

A super PAC aligned with the party’s House leadership, House Majority PAC, said last month it would spend $45 million on New York races this cycle.

The Democrats’ gathering comes as conservative Republicans who have leadership roles in the chamber this year are featured speakers at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md. Topics there include Ways and Means Chairman Jason Smith, R-Mo., talking about curbing the IRS, and Oversight and Accountability Chairman James R. Comer, R-Ky., speaking about the “Biden Crime Family.”  

In Baltimore, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Suzan DelBene said her focus is on her party being able to pick the next speaker. She said members of the caucus are well aware that “to make sure that we can continue to not just talk about the future of our country but actually implement the policies that make a difference, that we need to take back that gavel.”

The Democrat from Washington state noted that with the recent election of Jennifer McClellan to fill the seat vacated by the death of fellow Democrat A. Donald McEachin, Democrats will hold 213 seats while Republicans will hold 222.

“We have 18 seats that Republicans are in that President Biden won in 2020, and so we have an incredible opportunity right there,” DelBene said. Eleven of those seats are held by Republicans who first won in November, including six in New York.

In addition to the president, Democrats are scheduled to hear from Vice President Kamala Harris, several Cabinet secretaries and other officials, including infrastructure coordinator Mitch Landrieu and Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young.

“We’ve done the tough part, we’ve passed the pieces of legislation. Now we need to put them into practice,” Aguilar said, noting some of the discussion during the three-day conference would be about messaging.

House Democratic Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., speaks during the opening news conference of the House Democrats 2023 Issues Conference in Baltimore on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

After being asked about the recurring sound bites being used in House Democratic messaging, Democratic Policy and Communications Committee Chair Joe Neguse sought to offer some specifics.

“Behind every one of those sound bites are transformative investments that are making a real difference in the lives of American people. So what do we mean when we say putting people over politics? We mean fighting for lower costs, capping insulin at $35 for every senior on Medicare in the United States of America,” Neguse, D-Colo., told reporters. “That’s a huge deal for a whole lot of seniors in Colorado in the middle of the country and from coast to coast.”

The issues conference was convening hours after Biden and the Democrats could claim a policy victory on the drug pricing front, with pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly announcing it was voluntarily capping the price of insulin, beyond Medicare beneficiaries.

“Thirty-five bucks. Guess what that means? Every other company making insulin’s going to have to lower their prices to 35, because they can’t compete,” Biden said Wednesday evening.

Biden’s meeting with the House Democrats, which will be followed by a lunch meeting Thursday with Senate Democrats on Capitol Hill, came after Republicans claimed a victory as the Senate cleared a GOP-led resolution that would disapprove of a Labor Department rule allowing retirement plans to consider climate factors in investment decisions, setting the stage for the first veto of his presidency.

The White House has said Biden will veto the measure.