President Donald Trump rode into the White House on a populist wave with promises to protect working, middle-class families and vows to put the concerns of Main Street over those of Wall Street.
But for Senate Democrats, those campaign pledges have yet to materialize in the Republicans’ first two major legislative priorities under a unified GOP government: repealing the 2010 health care law and overhauling the tax code.
Democrats are at a disadvantage with the Republican majorities in the House and Senate. But by pointing out the gap between what Trump said during the campaign and what’s appeared in the GOP health care and tax plans, they are attempting to influence the legislative debate from the outside.
Both initiatives have a long way to go before reaching Trump’s desk. But in the shadow of next year’s critically important midterm elections, Democrats in the chamber are on the offensive and looking to portray the GOP proposals as major wins for the wealthy at the expense of the middle class.
“I think a lot of his actions so far on health care, on tax reform … are at best in direct conflict with what he said on the campaign trail,” said Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, who has a potentially difficult re-election campaign looming in 2018. “It seems like on a number of domestic issues especially, Trump has talked populist but governed to the right.”
Senate Democrats are defending 25 seats next year, including 10 in states that Trump won last fall.
In the aftermath of his victory, much of the post-mortem around Democrat Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful campaign has focused on Trump’s support among middle-class, blue-collar voters, particularly in states such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, which Democrats had carried since the 1980s.
But Democrats now see an opportunity in highlighting what they say are Trump’s broken vows to those voters, and are expected to message aggressively around it in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections.
“The Republican Party is the one who has made these promises to the voters, from the executive branch to members of Congress,” said David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “While they may not be following every single development in Washington, there is no confusion [among voters] that Republicans are in total control of government.”
On both their health care and tax proposals, Republicans are employing the budget procedure known as reconciliation that allows them to advance legislation in the Senate through a simple majority vote. This has left Democrats largely on the sidelines of big legislative initiatives this year.
But it has also given the party the ability to peg any concerns with those proposals on the GOP. The DSCC, for example, has been firing shots across the Republicans’ bow, even if there are scant few vulnerable GOP senators.
“It is a clear and telling demonstration of how the GOP is pushing the agenda of the rich and the powerful while working Americans are forced to pay a horrific price,” Bergstein said in a release following the House vote on the GOP health care bill last week.
Last month, the White House released a one-page framework for rewriting the tax code. It was light on detail but provided an early look into the direction Trump is heading.
Republican leaders in the House and Senate said the document would serve as “critical guideposts.” But Democrats pounced and saw an opportunity to portray Trump — a self-proclaimed billionaire — as going back on his pledge to protect middle-class workers.
“The Trump tax plan will benefit the incredibly wealthy and the special interests while leaving the middle class, working Americans, with crumbs, at best,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said last week.
Under Trump’s proposal, the corporate tax rate would shrink to 15 percent and the number of tax brackets for individuals would be reduced to three. The plan would repeal two taxes — the estate tax and the alternative minimum tax — that primarily apply to wealthier individuals, and would impose a one-time tax on corporations who hold money overseas to bring it to the United States.
The one-page outline did not address some parts of the tax code Trump criticized on the campaign trail, such as a loophole used by private investment firms that allows them to pay taxes on certain profits at a lower rate.
That led Sen. Tammy Baldwin to blast Trump at a recent press conference urging him to close the so-called carried interest loophole.
“President Trump is engaged in a classic Washington game of bait and switch and the hedge funders on Wall Street, they love it,” said Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat up for re-election in 2018. “Instead of taking on a rigged system, he is making a rigged system better even for them and worse for everyone else.” Trump narrowly won her state last year.
The issues could have a long shelf life. Republicans want to finish work on health care first, which could consume months of legislative time and would leave the tax deliberations waiting in line and open for partisans to paint as they may.
But Democrats certainly aren’t going to let up on their message on the House-passed health insurance bill anytime soon.
“The health care bill right now, the top 0.1 percent of this country will get, on average, a $200,000 tax break a year,” said North Dakota Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who is up for reelection in 2018 in a state Trump handily won. “Those folks are doing pretty well.”