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Democrats huddle to plot midterm strategy as inflation rises

President Biden speaks at the House Democratic Caucus' Issues Conference on March 11 in Philadelphia.
Patrick Semansky
President Biden speaks at the House Democratic Caucus' Issues Conference on March 11 in Philadelphia.

President Biden didn't mince words Friday when he addressed members of the House Democratic Caucus, punctuating a two-day conference in Philadelphia to plot strategy for the midterm elections.

"This off-year election, in my view, may be the most important off-year election in modern history," he said. "We know the fundamental change that shifts if we lose the House and Senate. The only thing I'll have then is a veto pen."

House Democrats' political fate is tied to Biden, whose administration faces record-high inflation and drastically increasing gas prices as the U.S. works to damage Russia's economy over its invasion of Ukraine.

Most political odds-makers, as well as even some Democratic lawmakers, expect the historical trend for midterm elections to hold true this fall: The party in power will lose seats.

At the conference, Democrats strategized on ways to prevent the much-predicted Republican red wave.

One method, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., said, is to "talk like real people" and pass what he referred to as the "Maloney brothers test."

"If you go home for Thanksgiving and your brothers think you sound like a jerk, you know, 'What's your grade point average?' — it doesn't matter to them," he said. "You have to show up and be a human being in your relationship with voters."

Maloney, who calls himself a "player-coach," faces reelection himself this fall. Already, Republicans are running an ad in his district telling voters that Maloney and Biden "crippled American energy production."

Another Democrat in a purple seat, Rep. Susan Wild of Pennsylvania, skipped the conference with the president in her home state. She told NPR ahead of the annual policy retreat that she was traveling instead to her district to talk to constituents about issues like rising gas prices. "I've got a lot of work to do there."

She added, "I need to talk about what we're doing to make sure that the shortages that we are seeing in the grocery stores and that kind of thing are being addressed."

Wild said she can point to various legislative wins — such as the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill — but thinks her own party made a mistake in pledging a sweeping social spending bill, which stalled out.

"It's always a problem when overpromises are made, and I do think that there was a problem with some things being overpromised," she said.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, disagrees.

"I don't understand the overpromising thing. Elections are won on people believing your vision," she said.

It's a reminder that the disconnect between centrists and progressives — who couldn't agree on the price tag for Biden's signature legislative package — is still very real.

"I think it isn't that we have to be able to get every single piece of our vision done, but we do need to understand the pain that people are facing and we have to show that we're working on it and we're trying to get it done," Jayapal said.

Democratic lawmakers across the political spectrum emphasized that Democrats need to remind voters about what they did get done — items like the COVID-19 relief and infrastructure bills — instead of getting bogged down in process arguments about other agenda items that have been blocked.

Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., pushed back at the idea that African American voters who helped Biden and Democrats win in 2020 may not show up in 2022 because they are disappointed that Congress didn't pass voting rights or police reform legislation.

"I don't want anybody to think that somehow the projections that are being done by the talking heads and the press about what bad shape we're in [are accurate]," Waters said, insisting that Black voters will turn out again because they understand the stakes in the next election.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks at the House Democratic Caucus' Issues Conference on March 11 in Philadelphia.
Patrick Semansky / AP
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks at the House Democratic Caucus' Issues Conference on March 11 in Philadelphia.

Looking to Biden for executive orders

Without a lot of time left to pass major legislation before the midterm elections and a recognition they don't have the votes to get things through, Democrats said they're pivoting to push Biden to advance immigration reforms, voting rights and efforts to cut costs through executive orders.

"It's very important for the executive to act if we cannot get legislative action immediately," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, noting that the Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order.

"Several of us have been encouraging the president to do the significant research that's necessary and to use that method to help kick-start recovery," added Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., a longtime Biden ally.

Pain at the pump

Democrats at the conference repeatedly acknowledged the strain that rising gas prices are causing their constituents, but they argued it's a sacrifice worth making to help Ukraine fight off the Russian invasion.

"I'm asking the people of the United States to also make the sacrifice, because in the long run, democracy is at stake," said Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee and recently returned from a trip to the Poland-Ukraine border.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said that at a time when people are grappling with inflation, his party has to talk about what it has done and what it still wants to do.

"President Biden and House Democrats have a record of results and a plan for progress. It's important to talk about both," he said. "Because if we can't anchor our plan for progress in the reality that we have actually delivered real results for the American people, then there's no reason for the American people to believe that we'll continue to get things done on their behalf."

He has no qualms about making a prediction for November:

"It's my view that we will keep the majority in 2022 and even be able to grow it," he told NPR.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.
Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.