Obama commends Democrats for fending off debt limit crisis

Amid tension within the Democratic Party over pending trade deals, President Obama on Friday stressed the importance of unity within the party, crediting Democrats’ cohesion for the passage of a bill to extend the nation’s borrowing authority.

“This caucus has shown time and time again, under the most difficult circumstances, the kind of courage and unity and discipline that has made me very, very proud,” Mr. Obama told House Democrats at their annual retreat in  Cambridge, Md. “The fact that we are no longer going to see, I believe, anybody try to hold our government hostage and threaten the full faith and credit of the United States of America in order to contract policy concessions; the fact that we were able to pass a clean debt limit is just one example of why when you guys are unified, you guys stick together, this country is better off.”

Both the Republican-led House and the Senate managed to pass a bill to raise the nation’s borrowing authority, even though conservative Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, tried to filibuster the bill. Republicans this year -- ahead of the November elections -- are less willing to join Cruz in a bruising fight over federal spending.  

In his short remarks, Mr. Obama hailed the Affordable Care Act and stressed the importance of raising the minimum wage -- two issues on that Democrats are united on and that will be key in the midterm elections. The president said that meeting with minimum wage workers a day earlier “reminded me of why I'm so proud of this caucus, because you're standing up on behalf of them.”

Repeating the slogan he used in his State of the Union address, Mr. Obama said, “It's time for Congress to act, because America deserves a raise.”

Mr. Obama also stressed the need to pass immigration reform -- another issue that Democrats plan to aggressively pursue this year.

During a question-and-answer session with Democrats after his remarks, Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., asked about pursuing further executive actions to give relief to the parents of “dreamers” - undocumented immigrants brought into the country as children. Through his executive authority, Mr. Obama is allowing certain “dreamers” to stay in the country legally, but not their parents.

Mr. Obama responded that there are "outer limits to what we can do by executive action,” and he urged Democrats, "don't take your foot off the pedal” when it comes to legislative immigration reform.

 Vice President Joe Biden spoke at the retreat ahead of Mr. Obama, stressing the positive economic outlook for the country. While Mr. Obama highlighted the importance of party unity, Biden suggested the Republican Party’s multiple factions have made it harder to get work done on Capitol Hill.

“There isn't a Republican Party,” he said. “I wish there were. I wish there was a Republican Party. I wish there was one person you could sit across the table from, make a deal, make a compromise, and know when you got up from that table, it was done... But there is no -- all you had to do is look at the response of the State of the Union. What were there, three or four?”

While Democrats are in sync on issues like immigration reform and raising the minimum wage, congressional Democrats are at odds with the administration over giving the president authority to fast-track two major trade deals with Asia and Europe through Congress -- without amendments and only limited debate.

During the question-and-answer session with Biden, Rep. Sandy Levin, D-Mich., asked about transparency in the trade deals, and Biden assured him there would be transparency.

White House spokesman Jay Carney on Friday told reporters that “this has been an issue that has never been easy for either party.”

“There are divisions on these issues in both parties, but we're going to press forward, and we've laid out why we think it's important for the American economy and American workers to expand trade in a way that the [Trans-Pacific Partnership] would do with our Asia partners... But, you know, these are, obviously, always issues that require a lot of discussion and consideration.”

Later Friday, Mr. Obama is heading to Fresno, Calif., to tour areas affected by one of the state's worst droughts in over 100 years. The president is announcing relief efforts to support those affected by the drought, including speeding up the delivery of up to $100 million in livestock disaster assistance for California producers from the farm bill. Also, the administration is committing $15 million in targeted conservation assistance for the most extreme drought areas and $60 million for California food banks to help families that may be economically affected by the drought.

Alicia Budich contributed to this report.