Senate Democrats Plan to Pick Their Battles With Trump

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., speaks to reporters Wednesday after being chosen as Senate Minority Leader. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., speaks to reporters Wednesday after being chosen as Senate Minority Leader. Andrew Harnik/AP

Demo­crats are treat­ing Don­ald Trump’s up­set win like they’re trapped in a cafet­er­ia with bad food. They can’t stand the place, but hope to find a few pal­at­able items non­ethe­less.

Sen­ate Demo­crats are sim­ul­tan­eously sound­ing com­bat­ive notes about the in­com­ing ad­min­is­tra­tion and in­sist­ing that they’re open to col­lab­or­a­tion when war­ran­ted. Those dual aims were re­flec­ted in Wed­nes­day’s rol­lout of an ex­pan­ded party-lead­er­ship team, which now in­cludes out­spoken lib­er­al Sen. Bernie Sanders and prom­in­ent mod­er­ate Sen. Joe Manchin.

A big in­fra­struc­ture pack­age comes up a lot as an area ripe for agree­ment, but there are oth­er top­ics as well. And it’s not just con­ser­vat­ive Demo­crats open to work­ing with Trump.

Chat­ting with a small group of re­port­ers Tues­day even­ing, lib­er­al Sen. Sher­rod Brown of Ohio took shots at Trump but also said he’s already reached out to the nas­cent ad­min­is­tra­tion on trade, where they have com­mon ground.

“I’ve already spoken to the trans­ition per­son in charge of trade and offered my help on get­ting out of [the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship], NAF­TA rene­go­ti­ation, stronger steel en­force­ment, oth­er trade is­sues,” said Brown, who faces reelec­tion in 2018 in a state that Trump won eas­ily.

But in the next breath, Brown was quick to note that he’ll op­pose oth­er parts of Trump’s agenda, such as ef­forts to dis­mantle Wall Street reg­u­la­tions.

More broadly, Demo­crats face a thorny polit­ic­al prob­lem. They’re wary of “nor­mal­iz­ing” Trump after his di­vis­ive cam­paign that saw him at­tack Mex­ic­ans, make sex­ist com­ments, and more.

Most re­cently, there has been a cas­cade of Demo­crat­ic at­tacks on Trump’s de­cision to re­tain Steph­en Ban­non as a top White House strategist, in­clud­ing a new let­ter from 169 House Demo­crats ur­ging Trump to cut Ban­non loose. Ban­non, be­fore join­ing the Trump cam­paign, led Breit­bart News, trans­form­ing it in­to a “white ethno-na­tion­al­ist pro­pa­ganda mill,” as the South­ern Poverty Law Cen­ter puts it.

But at the same time, they want to find areas where their agen­das over­lap. Those com­pet­ing strains were evid­ent as Sen­ate Demo­crats emerged from their lead­er­ship elec­tions in the Cap­it­ol.

Sen. Ben Cardin of Mary­land gave an im­promptu press con­fer­ence that nicely cap­tured these com­pet­ing goals. On one hand, he talked about how up­set his con­stitu­ents are about Trump’s win. “I get calls every day from people who are scared. I mean that. People who are really con­cerned,” he said.

Cardin also ex­pressed hope of find­ing com­mon ground, not­ing that Trump has said he’s open to keep­ing Obama­care pro­vi­sions that bar in­surers from deny­ing people with preex­ist­ing con­di­tions and al­low chil­dren to re­main on their par­ents’ health plans un­til they’re 26.

“We know we have got to play de­fense, but we also want to go on the of­fense, and we also want to work to­geth­er where we can,” Cardin said.

Con­ser­vat­ive Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, who faces reelec­tion in two years in a state where Trump cleaned up, signaled that she’s Trump-curi­ous too. Like oth­ers, she men­tioned in­fra­struc­ture as an area where Demo­crats could work with Trump, but said she sees oth­er po­ten­tial op­por­tun­it­ies too.

“Don­ald Trump said he wants to take a look at what we can do to un­rig the sys­tem for work­ing-class people. I’m really curi­ous about what that looks like, what his plans are,” she told Na­tion­al Journ­al in a short in­ter­view. She said there could be col­lab­or­a­tion on spe­cif­ic is­sues, such as her con­cern about po­ten­tial be­ne­fit cuts to be­ne­fi­ciar­ies of the Cent­ral States Pen­sion Fund.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Min­nesota iden­ti­fied re­build­ing Amer­ica’s in­fra­struc­ture, in­creas­ing the min­im­um wage, and elim­in­at­ing the “car­ried in­terest” tax loop­hole as eco­nom­ic is­sues where the in­com­ing pres­id­ent and Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic lead­er could agree.

The emer­ging mes­sage of cri­ti­cism mixed with hopes of co­oper­a­tion is evid­ent at the top of the Demo­crat­ic ranks.

Just after col­leagues elec­ted him Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic lead­er, Chuck Schu­mer at­tacked Ban­non, whose hir­ing has crys­tal­lized con­cerns about Trump’s di­vis­ive­ness. “We’re go­ing to go after him in terms of bigotry,” Schu­mer said of Ban­non.

He ex­ten­ded an olive branch to Trump, and a warn­ing too.

“We’re ready to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Re­pub­lic­ans, work­ing with soon-to-be Pres­id­ent Trump on is­sues where we agree,” said Schu­mer. “But we will go toe-to-toe against the pres­id­ent elect whenev­er our val­ues or the pro­gress we’ve made are un­der as­sault.”

Demo­crats said Wed­nes­day that Schu­mer’s re­la­tion­ship with Mitch Mc­Con­nell, an im­prove­ment over the one between the GOP Sen­ate lead­er and the de­part­ing Sen. Harry Re­id, and his deal-mak­ing nature will help Con­gress move for­ward on vari­ous is­sues.

“He is someone that genu­inely loves gov­ern­ment,” Klobuchar said of Schu­mer. “He likes to be, in the words of his fa­vor­ite Hamilton song, ‘in the room where it hap­pens,’ which he some­times bursts out singing sporad­ic­ally.”

The early pos­ture with Trump is part of the Demo­crats’ lar­ger ef­fort to shape their iden­tity in re­sponse to the GOP’s White House win.

On Wed­nes­day, Schu­mer ex­plained that the ma­jor les­son learned from Hil­lary Clin­ton’s un­ex­pec­ted loss was that Demo­crats need “a big­ger, bolder, sharp­er edge to an eco­nom­ic mes­sage.”

He wants Demo­crats to speak to Amer­ic­ans who be­lieve that the gov­ern­ment doesn’t work for them and is be­hold­en to “big money and spe­cial in­terests,” to those who think the eco­nomy is “rigged” against them.

It’s a mes­sage to both the Bernie Sanders and Don­ald Trump voter—and one that Schu­mer’s new lead­er­ship team will try to amp­li­fy.

The lead­er­ship elec­tions saw Demo­crats in­crease the num­ber of mem­bers with some kind of lead­er­ship role, giv­ing slots to mem­bers on the left and right of the caucus.

The pro­gress­ive Sanders was named chair of out­reach, while Manchin, one of the most con­ser­vat­ive Demo­crats, has the title of “vice chair” of the Demo­crat­ic Policy and Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mit­tee.

Sen. Tammy Bald­win of Wis­con­sin, one of the Rust Belt states that Clin­ton un­ex­pec­tedly lost, was named Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic Con­fer­ence sec­ret­ary.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec