Washington (CNN) – As President Obama heads behind closed doors Wednesday evening with House Democratic leaders for a key election-year strategy session, senior party officials said that top lawmakers are privately still fuming about White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs' declaration this weekend that Republicans could take control of Congress in November.
The senior officials said that at a private Capitol Hill meeting on Tuesday night, a string of House Democrats - including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi - expressed deep frustration that Gibbs had played into Republicans' hands by answering a hypothetical question on NBC's "Meet the Press" about whether Democrats may lose their grip on power.
In a statement that senior White House officials maintain was blindingly obvious and really not newsworthy, Gibbs said on Sunday, "I think there is no doubt there are enough seats in play - that could cause Republicans to gain control."
But senior Democratic officials on Capitol Hill said it's one thing for a pundit to state the obvious about the state of play in the election and quite another for a top White House official to offer an assessment that may depress the party's base just as officials hope to start revving liberals up.
"Members were hot - hot, hot, hot," one senior Democratic official told CNN about the private meeting Tuesday where House Democrats directed their anger at Dan Turton, a White House aide who attended the session.
A senior administration official acknowledged to CNN there was heavy tension at Tuesday's Congressional meeting, but stressed that many lawmakers also said that after expressing their frustration they now want to turn the page and do not plan to rail against the president himself at Wednesday night's meeting at the White House with Pelosi and other leaders like Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Maryland, and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, South Carolina.
That assessment was backed up by a senior Democratic aide on Capitol Hill, who told CNN: "The Speaker said last night at the meeting that members have vented but we can't let it be a distraction. We need to move on and focus on the tasks at hand."
Gibbs on Wednesday at his briefing sought to ease some of the tension by saying Pelosi's efforts have been "monumental" on behalf of the president's agenda. He also reiterated that his original comments on Sunday were meant to rally the party into coming together on showing voters there will be a sharp contrast between the Republican and Democratic agendas in November.
"On that choice we will do very well," said Gibbs, adding that he believes Democrats will keep control of both the House and Senate.
Nevertheless, Gibbs' comments sent alarm bells through the upper echelons of the Democratic party, especially because the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on Thursday has a long-planned breakfast meeting with lobbyists who are key party fundraisers. The committee that is in charge of helping to elect House Democrats had been hoping to project momentum in advance of Friday's deadline to public reveal fundraising numbers for the first six months of this year.
The fear now among some top Democrats, in the words of one top party official, is that the Gibbs comments will "give the Republicans a big fundraising boost" as perception builds that Democrats are in even deeper trouble than already expected.
Gibbs himself has insisted all week that he was really just stating the obvious about the challenge Democrats are facing. "I think I did what is maybe uncommon in this town and yesterday I opened my mouth and stated the obvious," Gibbs said at Monday's daily press briefing with reporters. "I do not believe that you all are now scurrying around to cover this election markedly different based on my having said that there are a number of seats that are in play."
Gibbs has also stressed all week that he's merely trying to focus everyone on the fact that both parties will be offering sharply different visions of how to deal with key issues like the economy.
"You're going to have a choice between the leadership that we have now and the leadership that believes that BP should be apologized to first and foremost, and that the type of calamity wrought by the financial meltdown in the end of 2008 is analogous to the size of an ant," Gibbs said Monday. "Those are choices that the American people are going to get a chance to hear and make in November."
UPDATE: From CNN's Brianna Keilar and Deirdre Walsh
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman, took a jab at Gibbs Wednesday, telling reporters, "People need to be aware of how their comments will be interpreted in a political environment."
Later, in an interview with CNN, Van Hollen stressed the need to move past the comments and tried to steer the focus toward criticism of Republicans.
"There is no upside to this and we need to get beyond this and focus less on what the president's spokesman said on a news show and focus on what the Republicans say they will do if they get control of the House," Van Hollen said. He said Republicans are asking voters "to send back the same guys who got the economy in the ditch to begin with."
On Wednesday evening's White House meeting – House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said Democrats need to get on the same page. "I think our message to the president is we need to be speaking obviously on message from the White House, and from the House, and I think we need to be focused on what we've done to create jobs and move the country forward."
Hoyer attempted to downplay the back and forth in wake of Robert Gibbs comments, "as I said yesterday I think we're going to win control of the House – we're going to maintain control of the House so I think any conclusion other than that is incorrect."
"I think there's some need for coordination and meeting is important to do that and that's what we're going to do."
House Republican Leader John Boehner, seized on the internal squabble among Democrats, saying the Democratic Caucus is "in chaos."
But trying to tamp down expectations about Republicans taking control, Boehner noted "I think we've got a steep hill to climb to get to the majority. We've got a lot of work to do, but it is possible."
Dina Titus, a first term Democrat from Nevada and a top target of Republicans, told CNN she didn't think the spat within her party would affect her and other vulnerable Democrats negatively.
"I'm hoping that it's going to get Democrats all enthused and they turn out even more because these are tough races," Titus said.
But she also sought to distance herself from the White House and top Democrats, saying "We're just running our own race. I'm not Obama. I'm not Reid. I'm Dina Titus and that's what we're focusing on."