Year-End Drama a Preview of Democratic Strategy Under Trump?

Democrats attempted to goad president-elect into taking sides in the congressional standoff

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.,  is the next Democratic leader. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.,  is the next Democratic leader. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted December 14, 2016 at 5:00am

Democrats hope to drive a wedge between President-elect Donald Trump and Republicans on the Hill. And they think they may have figured out a way to do it.

The Democrats want to highlight areas where Trump is more aligned with their policies, particularly on populist economic issues. They’re hoping that Trump will weigh in and distance himself from Republican members of Congress. If Trump doesn’t, they’re prepared to call him out.

The final Senate showdown of 2016 could serve as a model for Democratic strategies to come in the way lawmakers in the minority plan to use President-elect Donald Trump to their advantage.

Trump didn’t opt in during the December standoff, but it remains to be seen if he’ll stay quiet once he takes office.

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“Anytime Donald Trump agrees with us we’re going to find a way to work with him,” said Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin.

The Illinois Democrat said that involves pushing him to speak out even when Republicans are on the opposite side, and “encouraging him to tweet like mad if he agrees with us,” Durbin said.

Before the Senate adjourned, Democrats emerged from a lengthy Dec. 8 caucus meeting saying they were digging in on two issues: extending health care benefits for retired coal miners and backing a “Buy America” provision in a water infrastructure bill requiring American-made steel and iron to be used in water projects.

Backing “Buy America” was championed by a small group of Democratic senators, including Sen. Edward J. Markey.  So why was the entire caucus now taking up the cause?

“‘Buy America’ is the heart of what the Democratic Party stands for and Donald Trump says he stands for as well,” the Massachusetts Democrat said after the meeting. “So this gives us a chance to kind of pair up Democrat with Trump philosophy in order to advance that goal.”

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Democrats were quick to point out that support from coal country helped Trump sweep up states like West Virginia, and encouraged him to speak out in favor of their push to extend the benefits. They wrote letters and nagged Trump on Twitter, the president-elect’s preferred platform for communicating directly with the public.

As Trump spoke about boosting American industry in Iowa on Dec. 9., Sen. Bob Casey and others called out Trump during the speech. The Pennsylvania Democrat tweeted, “Fighting w/ & to include Buy America in a major bill should use influence w/ R leaders now.”

Trump didn’t bite. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he didn’t speak with Trump about the issues.

Other Republicans said Trump’s silence shows he’s focused on building his team and bringing both sides together when he takes office.

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“I think that he’s showing some wisdom,” said Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. “When he comes in we’ll start talking about how we fix this and so many other problems that [President Barack] Obama has created over the last eight years.”

Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., a Trump ally, said Trump’s reluctance to weigh in shows he’s focused on breaking congressional gridlock.

“I think what you’re going to see is he is going to look for people to find a way to get to a compromise solution without giving up their values, to move some of these sticky issues,” Perdue said.

But Trump’s silence last week will likely not stop Democrats from pushing him to take their side over congressional Republicans. And if the silence persists, Democrats will waste no time reminding the American public about Trump’s campaign promises.

“I think what you saw last week is a dynamic that will repeat itself again and again,” said a senior Democratic aide.

Democrats point to trade policies, infrastructure spending, and protecting Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security as key areas where they can find common ground with Trump. 

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Republicans insist they are united with the Trump administration, but some Democrats are expecting those policy divisions to manifest themselves now that Trump turns from campaigning to governing.

“I think it is easy to paper over or advertise over those divisions in the election context because people just want to win,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii. “It is near impossible when you hold the executive and legislative branch to pretend those divisions don’t exist.”

While Trump’s support for coal miners and provisions like “Buy America” may have given Democrats some leverage last week, Schatz also said the decision to dig in was more than just an opportunity to divide Trump and Republicans.

Schatz said “passions were running high” in the caucus meeting and the policies they united around aligned with Democratic principles. Schatz noted Democrats are also realizing they need to stand their ground after bruising 2016 election losses.

“I think that Democrats, because of our desire to be good colleagues and to make the place work, sometimes people haven’t seen that we’re willing to fight for what we believe in,” Schatz said. “I think that was one of the lessons of the last election, and we’re learning it.”

Contact Bowman at bridgetbowman@rollcall.com and follow her on Twitter @bridgetbhc.