U.S. Senate Democrats will hold their annual retreat beginning Tuesday in Annapolis, giving lawmakers a chance to strategize about gun control, immigration and the latest fiscal crisis.
The meeting, which will end with a closed-door address Wednesday by President Barack Obama, comes as federal lawmakers have made little progress on addressing more than $85 billion in automatic spending cuts that will kick in at month's end if Congress does not act.
Leadership aides declined to release an agenda for the gathering, but Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, the new chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is expected to speak to the caucus along with several of her colleagues about the automatic spending cuts, known as sequestration.
"The immediate need is what will we do about sequestration, what is our strategy on the fiscal problems of this country and avoiding any more cliffs," Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, said in an interview after speaking to those issues on the floor Monday. "I don't want to see sequestration — it's bad for our country, and it's particularly bad for our region."
But there is increasing pessimism a deal can be reached before the cuts begin. Cardin said he believes the Obama administration is prepared to allow sequestration to take effect rather than accept what most Democrats would see as a bad deal — reductions in domestic spending but not military spending, and no action to increase revenue.
The Democratic meeting, which will take place at the Westin and is closed to the public, is similar to one Senate Republicans will hold at the Library of Congress Tuesday. Both houses of Congress have held past retreats in Maryland. Republicans in the House of Representatives met in Baltimore last year and House Democrats gathered in Cambridge.
Senators will arrive in Annapolis amid the legislative session of the General Assembly, in which state lawmakers are considering gun control measures proposed by Gov. Martin O'Malley. The Democratic governor, who many believe is preparing to run for president in 2016, will host the senators at the governors residence on Tuesday for dinner.
Annapolis officials said they do not expect traffic disruptions or closures when the president visits Wednesday. Asked about the significance of having more lawmakers in town than usual, Annapolis Mayor Joshua J. Cohen said the city is pleased to play host.
"It's a nice boost for our economy," Cohen said.
Democrats are sure to spend significant time discussing sequestration, which Congress delayed to the end of February as part of the temporary fix for the "fiscal cliff" in early January. Many economists say the deep cuts, which would hit military and nonmilitary spending alike, would be particularly painful for Maryland, Virginia and Washington.
Despite the implications for the economy, the run-up to the deadline has been less intense than the flurry of negotiations that have characterized past fiscal showdowns. Democrats are again insisting that new taxes be included in any deal to avert the automatic cuts and Republicans are equally adamant about reforming entitlement programs.
"We believe that we have to rein in entitlement spending," Rep. Andy Harris, a Baltimore County Republican, said on CNBC on Monday. "You can't tax your way out of this mess."