WASHINGTON -- Over a two-and-a-half hour dinner at the Jefferson Hotel in downtown Washington Wednesday night, President Barack Obama and nine House Democrats tried to game out a way to pass a policy agenda through a Congress best known for passing nothing.
Those who attended acknowledged that there are few, if any, good options. The dinner meeting -- the latest bit of congressional wooing by Obama -- helped illuminate the issues the party wants to focus on in the months and years ahead. But it didn't spark any outside-the-box plans to turn those issues into laws.
"There are obviously challenges there," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) conceded in an interview with The Huffington Post. "The president pointed out he is working hard to reach out to Republicans, trying to get bipartisan support for these measures."
The evening, Van Hollen added, was constructive overall. He and another attendee said the president stressed his desire to reach a budget agreement with Republicans. While Democrats have complained about his offer to reduce the cost of living adjustment for Social Security benefits in search of that agreement, members remain satisfied that he won't sign off on any deal that isn't balanced in nature.
"This is a beginning of the process, not the end of the process," Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), a critic of the president's chained CPI proposal, said in an interview prior to the meeting. "With regard to the president, I appreciate his civility in the face of what we have on the other side in terms of their incivility. So even if I do have a disagreement I have respect with what he is trying to do."
Wednesday night's dinner also produced a general agreement that the party had to push harder for a replacement to the spending cuts implemented under sequestration. With meat inspectors and air traffic controllers already getting exemptions, there has been growing anxiety that Congress will only implement fixes for groups with lobbying clout.
Van Hollen said that "the focus" remains on a full sequestration fix. DeLauro, meanwhile, said Congress "shouldn't be in the business of cherry-picking" which group gets a reprieve from the cuts.
Whether the desire for a balanced budget or a full sequester replacement can translate into action is another question entirely. House Republicans control the floor, after all, making Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) a veritable stopgap for any agenda item.
Because of that, the president charmed congressional Republicans over dinner well before he sat down with House Democrats on Wednesday night (though he met with both parties on the Hill last month). The confab at the Jefferson offered Democrats an opportunity to remind him not to bend too far in the GOP's direction.
"People tend to forget that the president needs House Democrats to do anything,that even if you jam Boehner enough to get him to do something that violates the Hastert Rule, you still need House Democrats to support it," said one House Democratic aide, referring to the rule dictating that the speaker only brings up a bill if the majority of his or her party supports it. "Even if he woos House Republicans to oblivion he can't piss us off too much."
A White House official declined to elaborate on what was discussed at dinner. The evening was designed to be a frank discussion of ideas, predicated on the agreement that none of the parties will reveal those ideas after the fact. But the official did note that the talk wasn't just about the difficulties the party will face in passing its agenda.
"The group also discussed progress being made on a number of other issues, including passing comprehensive immigration reform, commonsense measures to reduce gun violence and expanding access to high-quality education," the official said.
Gun control, in particular, was a big part of Wednesday night's dinner, attendees said. The president pledged to revisit legislation expanding background checks, emboldened by the public reaction to that bill's failure to make it through the Senate.
"I think that there was a spirit of optimism that the public outcry in response to the Senate's defeat of the bill that had 90 percent public support means that hope is still alive when it comes to that particular gun safety measure," Van Hollen said.
But on this topic too, legislative options are limited. "We don’t have the power to bring it to the floor and they won't bring it to the floor," DeLauro said. So House Democrats are banking on the Senate trying to move its bill again while they build up support for their own measure, which already has more than 150 co-sponsors.
"We don't see those necessarily as sequential events," said Van Hollen. "It is really important that in addition to urging the Senate to revive the gun safety legislation that we also start now building public support for the House measure."