House Democrats Take Wait-and-See Approach

Minority party keeping cards close on supporting GOP agenda

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi made no promises to offer support to Republicans struggling to advance their agenda. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi made no promises to offer support to Republicans struggling to advance their agenda. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted April 4, 2017 at 5:00am

House Democrats are taking a two-pronged approach for leverage in a divided but still Republican-led Congress: Let the majority duke it out among themselves, and wait and see whether to offer votes when there is not enough GOP support to advance key legislation. 

The fissures in the GOP were on full display in late March when Speaker Paul D. Ryan pulled a bill that aimed to repeal and replace parts of the 2010 health care law because it failed to get support from the conservative and moderate wings of the party.

That opens Republican leadership up to the possibility of needing Democratic votes in the future, though some GOP caucus members demurred when asked about the notion.

As Ryan announced that he was yanking the health care bill from the House floor on March 24, Democrats chanted, “Vote! Vote! Vote!” in the chamber, encouraging Republicans to take the vote. That would have forced members of the GOP who campaigned on repealing the health care law to vote “no” publicly, potentially leaving them vulnerable in 2018.

The minority party has since exercised some restraint at times in criticizing their counterparts.

“The best way to describe it was not exuberance in terms of our expression, it was an expression of relief that damage was not done,” New York Rep. Joseph Crowley, the House Democratic Caucus chairman, told Roll Call about the bill’s failure. “Part of what our strategy is going to be is to point out where we think the administration will move next to undermine the law.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi last week panned Ryan for his “disastrous performance” during the health care episode.

The next congressional showdown is set for the last week in April, when lawmakers have to pass a spending package to keep the federal government in business.

When asked if Democrats would offer votes on a spending bill to avoid a government shutdown, Pelosi said, “We’ll see.”

While asserting that bipartisan appropriators could negotiate an agreement among themselves, the California Democrat said her party colleagues would “have to see what it is” before pledging support.

There are areas, however, where Democrats won’t budge, Pelosi said. A spending bill that includes funding for a wall on the southern border or funding cuts to agencies such as the National Institutes of Health is unlikely to garner support from virtually any of the 193 members of the minority party in the House.

House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer said Democrats could also take a back seat and let the majority fight publicly among themselves as a means of finding leverage.

 “We don’t let them duke it out. They just duke it out,” the Maryland Democrat said last week. “They don’t need our help, apparently, to do that.”

President Donald Trump has on several occasions said he intends to work with Democrats to pass bills if factions of House Republicans refuse to come on board.

The failure of the health care bill was largely attributed to members of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of hard-line conservative Republicans, and members of the moderate Tuesday Group.

While Republicans have now vowed to revisit the effort — after the failure, they pledged to move on to an overhaul of the tax code — they may need Democratic support if divisions within the GOP cannot be bridged.

Crowley didn’t have a positive assessment of that.

The New York Democrat said the White House was “speaking out of both sides” of its mouth by blaming Democrats for failing legislation, but then offering to reach out.

Crowley, Hoyer and a spokesman for Pelosi all said their offices had not been contacted by the White House.

“You really can’t have it both ways,” Crowley said. “There is so much distrust right now with this administration and the Democratic caucus, universally speaking … that a path forward is not clear to us in terms of cooperation.”

While Democrats insist there are areas of compromise, the details of such deals are scant. The chances of working in a bipartisan way largely depends on the Republicans, Crowley said.

“The leverage happens when they’re dysfunctional; they can’t work amongst themselves,” he said.

Crowley said that while Democrats don’t support a government shutdown, they would not be “held hostage” by a spending package that includes money for the border wall, bars federal money from Planned Parenthood, or makes cuts to a host of other programs and agencies as Trump’s first budget proposed.

“We will not be held hostage,” Crowley said of Republicans. “If they do want to work in a bipartisan way, that’s up to them.”

Contact Rahman at remarahman@cqrollcall.com or follow her on Twitter at @remawriter