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Deal Or Disrupt? Congressional Democrats Weigh 2017 Choices

Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer at a 2015 press conference. The two Democratic leaders are plotting out how to work with a Republican president and Congress next year.
Evan Vucci
Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer at a 2015 press conference. The two Democratic leaders are plotting out how to work with a Republican president and Congress next year.

Democrats may have lost the House and the Senate over the past eight years, but they always had one thing: President Barack Obama — and his veto pen — in the White House.

That won't be the case next year, when Republicans find themselves with all the power in Washington for the first time since 2006.

The capitol's new power dynamic — and the aggressive agenda Republican leaders are laying out for 2017-- is forcing Democrats to make some tough strategic choices about how they'll work as a minority party.

The starting point in the conversation Democrats are having with themselves right now is this: Republicans in Congress spent almost all of the past eight years opposing President Obama, and they seem to have reaped a lot of political rewards for the block opposition.

GOP leaders will get to set the agenda in Congress next year. And among their first orders of business will be voting on a Supreme Court nominee picked by President Donald Trump. That's after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rejected any hearings, let alone votes, for Obama's pick, Merrick Garland.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is quick and careful to reject an approach of wholesale opposition, though. She recently described Democrats' approach as "always trying to find a place where we can find a common goal. Giving [Republicans] credit, or saving face, whatever it happens to be."

"We would be hopeful that there are some places that we can work together," Pelosi said.

But when Pelosi and other Democrats talk about working with Trump, that common goal is conditional. They say Trump would have to be willing to do things they care about — like, perhaps, following through on a promise to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on infrastructure projects.

"We think it should be large. He's mentioned a trillion dollars. I told him that sounds good to me," incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer recently told ABC News.

Highlighting differences

But otherwise, Democrats are confident that drawing out their differences with the new president will be a winning strategy.

"Our big leverage is the public," Pelosi said, expressing confidence that public opinion sides with Democrats when it comes to issues like not making major changes to Medicare and Social Security.

Democrats are eager to draw the contrast on those sorts of topics, and see those particular wedge issues as a big reason why they won back the House and Senate in 2006, the last time Republicans held so much power in Washington.

That's why, while Republicans like McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan are focusing on repealing Obamacare, Pelosi, Schumer, and other Democrats keep talking about the possibility of wholesale Medicare changes.

"Republicans here in Washington are gearing up for a war on seniors," Schumer warned at a recent Washington press conference with a "hands off our Medicare" message.

Schumer said Senate Democrats will give "one heck of a hearing" to Rep. Tom Price, Trump's pick for the Department of Health and Human Services and a longtime Medicare critic.

Democrats think they can generate a lot of positive headlines by grilling Trump's cabinet picks. "These are, with a few exceptions, radical nominees, the likes of which we have never seen in this country," said Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut.

Democrats see hearings as a way to continue emphasizing their key concerns about Trump, like the fact he never released his tax returns, and the ongoing question of how he'll avoid conflict-of-interest problems as president.

They see Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson's hearing as an avenue to highlight Russia's attempt to disrupt the presidential race, and Trump's warm words toward Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A big choice on Obamacare

But highlighting contrasts can only go so far, when Republicans set the Congressional agenda.

At some point, Democrats still face a choice. Do they do their best to block every single big initiative, or try to work with Republicans to make it more Democrat-friendly?

Sarah Binder studies Congress at the Brookings Institution, and said Democrats do have leverage. "On most measures, whether it's spending bills, deregulation, repeal Dodd-Frank. That all requires cooperation from at least eight Democrats."

That's because while Republicans will control the Senate with 52 seats, they'll need at least 60 votes to advance bills in the chamber.

The hardest political calculus could be Obamacare.

Republicans can repeal the landmark law without any Democratic votes, using the budget reconciliation process that helped pass the initial law. But they'd need Democratic support in the Senate to pass a replacement plan, since the measure would be subject to filibuster.

Blocking any sort of replacement plan, and then trying to lay the blame for disappearing health care coverage on Trump and Republicans, would be a bold, if callous, political move.

"Are they kind of, as a party, constitutionally adverse to that type of strategy? Many people think so," said Binder. "That they just value government and legislative action too much to do that to the process."

Indeed, many Democrats might want to work with Republicans to keep as much of Obamacare as they can.

But helping give Trump a big legislative accomplishment could make him more popular. And it could anger progressive activists.

"It is the responsibility of this minority of Democrats in Congress to block, obstruct, disrupt, and do whatever they can," filmmaker Michael Moore recently argued on CNN.

He issued a warning to Democrats who may consider cutting deals with Trump: "In the same way that the Tea Party was there in 2009, myself and thousands like me are going to be at those town halls in the district in the spring. And we will primary these Democrats if they don't do their job."

Warnings like that may be why leaders like Schumer are quick to qualify any talk about working with Trump on issues like infrastructure spending. "When we oppose Trump on values, or if his presidency takes a dark, divisive turn, we're going to do it tooth-and-nail," he told ABC News.

Pelosi knows Democrats all across the country are anxious. But she's urging patience as the party tries to make its case to voters.

"Somebody used the analogy of, it's like telling somebody they married the wrong person or their art is fake," she recently told reporters.

The first scenario is something many people have seen happen to a friend or family member. The second? Maybe not as much. Still, Pelosi's point was that American voters did choose Trump and the GOP this year.

"They bought it. They'll find out sooner or later whether they made a mistake," she said, arguing that it's better to let the married couple or art connoisseur make that discovery themselves, than to be told by an outside party.

Pelosi has seen voters reject Democrats, come back to the party, and then reject them again.

She said she is patient enough to point out the key differences between the parties, and wait for voters to eventually come back.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.