Moderate Senate Democrats on the ballot in 2018 are racking up a number of key legislative victories in advance of what is expected to be a bitter midterm election cycle.
The successes, on bills ranging from veterans’ issues to bank regulation and tax credits for so-called clean coal technology, are the kind that can drive support among voters in the rural states that many of these members call home.
But breaking through a chaotic news cycle dominated by whatever President Donald Trump does that day continues to present a challenge for lawmakers who want to broadcast their victories. And it remains to be seen how the decision by the entire Senate Democratic caucus to vote against the tax law, the signature legislative achievement of this Congress, will affect voters’ decisions this fall.
Republicans counter that the bills — like the recent banking legislation — are bipartisan ones that were years in the making. And while they admit the passage of those measures could benefit some Democrats politically, GOP members say they are examples of the kind of work Congress should be doing.
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While the Senate has advanced few major bills outside of the partisan efforts last year on health care and taxes, the chamber has passed a plethora of smaller bills, many of which have been signed into law.
Members like Sens. Jon Tester of Montana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, all of whom are up for re-election in 2018 in states that Trump won handily, have influenced many of those measures.
Tester, for example, worked alongside Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Johnny Isakson last year to pass legislation that, among other things, gave the Department of Veterans Affairs more latitude to fire poorly performing employees.
“As a policymaker in Washington, D.C., what the hell am I sent here for? Sent here to watch the world go to hell around me? No, I’m sent here to get some things done,” Tester, who is the top Democrat on the veterans panel, said in a recent interview.
For Isakson, his work with Tester is helped by the fact that veterans’ issues generally enjoy bipartisan support.
“Collaboration is about effort. He’s cooperative [and] I’m cooperative. I enjoy working with him,” the Georgia Republican said.
For moderate Democrats, working across the aisle can sometimes draw the ire of their colleagues.
The Senate last week passed legislation to lift some regulations imposed by the Dodd-Frank law, the most significant banking bill the chamber has advanced since the financial crisis.
The measure was a key victory for community banks, backers say, and it is one that supporters like Tester, Donnelly and Heitkamp can tout back in their home states, many of which rely heavily on those institutions. But the legislation faced intense scrutiny from Democratic lawmakers like Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Banking ranking member Sherrod Brown of Ohio.
“It can be frustrating, but no it doesn’t,” Tester said when asked whether that type of criticism factors into his decision-making on policy. “The people who were very, very critical of this bill don’t understand what’s going on in rural America.”
The split between representing rural and urban states could be one of the key reasons members like Tester can get so much accomplished. Many of the rural states they represent are ideologically divided or lean Republican, a political reality that pushes Democratic lawmakers to embrace a more moderate stance. But members say it is more than that.
“It’s just finding something that we care about and working to find solutions rather than making a point through a message,” Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said.
Murkowski and Heitkamp worked together to end a ban on crude oil exports. The ban was lifted after a provision they authored was included in the fiscal 2016 spending bill.
The trust circle
Last June, Heitkamp and her Democratic colleague Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island stood alongside Republican Sens. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and John Barrasso of Wyoming to introduce legislation to provide tax credits to companies that pursue clean coal technology.
The coalition was rare. Whitehouse is one of the Democratic Conference’s most pro-environment members, while Barrasso has questioned whether human behavior has contributed to climate change.
“This is not only an important piece of legislation for what it does, but it’s important in its symbolism for what it means in terms of working together and the future of bipartisanship,” Heitkamp said at a press conference introducing the legislation.
That bill was signed into law as part of a recent continuing resolution. The victory was a huge one for Heitkamp and North Dakota, a heavy coal-producing state.
But bridging the divide between such diverse opinions required a strong mediator, a role most moderates in the Senate say they are used to playing. McCaskill and others say their secret weapon is trust. Republican lawmakers feel comfortable approaching them with ideas, and in turn, that helps them notch legislative victories.
“People know that I’m not going to reject it just because it’s a Republican idea,” McCaskill said.
The Trump card
That Democratic members of the Senate’s moderate bloc have had success is perhaps surprising given the need for Trump’s signature.
Trump, who has urged Missouri voters to oust McCaskill but has also praised Heitkamp as a “good woman,” has a tendency to complicate policy discussions on Capitol Hill. His maneuvers on the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects nearly 700,000 undocumented people from deportation, undermined the effort to pass legislation to extend it.
Despite the eventual need for Trump’s backing, members say the new administration has not affected their ability to work across the aisle.
“I don’t look at it in terms of who’s the president as much as I do what are the coalition we’ve been able to build with our colleagues and how have we been able to position the bills that we’ve done to get this over the hump,” Heitkamp said.
But one area where Trump has impeded their work is in touting the achievements back home.
“The hollering, especially in this administration, gets a lot of attention. The chaos that is this administration takes up so much oxygen, so we have to go home and talk about it, because if we don’t, nobody will,” said McCaskill, who touts 23 of her bills signed into law this congress.
Asked if she’s been able to break through on the topic with voters back home, the Missouri Democrat said, “I hope so.”
“If I haven’t yet, I certainly plan on it,” she added.
And while Trump may end up claiming the legislative victories as his own, some members are fine with that.
“He’s signed them and taken credit for our work. But I don’t care, success takes many authors,” Tester said.