For congressional Democrats, losing the White House meant the loss of more than the president's veto power over Republican-sponsored legislation. It also left the Democrats without a central idea factory and place to commune with the Democratic Party's constituency groups. "The loss of the White House left us in a vacuum," said a staffer for the Democratic House leadership. "In the past, the administration served as the nexus, in charge of coordinating with outside groups."
House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut have stepped into the void. In April they convened the first of what are likely to be weekly strategy sessions with a wide range of groups. Off the record and closed to reporters, the meetings are set up as two-way discussions to help House Democrats deal with GOP initiatives. "They're supposed to allow us to respond quickly to presidential initiatives and to the agenda in Congress," said Bill Samuel, the AFL-CIO's legislative director, who attended the first meeting on April 5. Of course, Democrats have always met on an ad hoc basis with labor, environmental, civil rights groups, and other organizations, but now the interaction will be formalized. "We all realize that there's going to be a continuing assault, so some of the outside groups wanted to be able to share information and to coordinate a little better," Samuel said.
Taking part in the first meeting were 15 to 20 organizations, including the AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club, the Economic Policy Institute, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL), People for the American Way, and other organized-labor, environmental, and women's groups, said Roger Hickey of the Campaign for America's Future, who attended. The meetings are designed to delve into the details of strategy and policy development, according to Hickey, and they will be kept fairly small and conducted by invitation only. Unlike the liberal coalition assembled to oppose President George W. Bush's tax-cut package--Fair Taxes for All, led by Ralph Neas of People for the American Way--the weekly meetings, unimaginatively dubbed "The Groups Meeting" by the leadership, are geared toward the nitty-gritty of policy development. "Neas's coalition has to be 'least common denominator,'" noted Hickey. "This meeting can get into things like how to develop strategy on a Democratic substitute bill. Neas can't take a position on that."
According to DeLauro, whose job in the Democratic leadership puts her in charge of communications, the meetings began after some of the groups reached out to the House leadership. "It's a small group of organizations that have the same policy priorities or policy priorities that overlap with the Democratic agenda," she said, mentioning education, health care, and the environment as key topics for discussion. DeLauro drew a parallel between the Groups Meeting and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's Rapid Response teams, issue-specific efforts by a cadre of congressional Democrats to counter GOP legislation.
But it's unclear what might happen if some of the attendees end up disagreeing with the Democratic leadership's priorities. Not invited to attend the first get-together was Public Citizen, the consumer watchdog group founded by Ralph Nader; Public Citizen's Congress Watch arm recently put out a report critical of the Democrats for their alliance with the gambling industry. "I guess they didn't want us to attend, and I'm not sure I'd want to attend," said Frank Clemente, Congress Watch's director.