Senate Democrats Plan to Pick Their Battles With Trump
A caucus dismayed by his victory sees a few areas for collaboration too.
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.