As congressional Democrats prepare to deal with a Republican White House, they appear ready to take the opposite approach, effectively challenging President-elect Donald Trump by finding opportunities to say “yes.”
The goal is to strategically engage with the White House on common objectives and at the same time try to drive a political wedge between Trump and those Republicans anxious about his costlier ideas, such as rebuilding infrastructure, aiding blue-collar workers and expanding paid family leave, a pet project of daughter Ivanka Trump.
Leading the strategy on Capitol Hill is new Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, who is expected to clear her internal party election Wednesday for a return as party leader.
In her first phone call with the president-elect this month, Pelosi was already working on Trump, reminding him of shared acquaintances and speaking about the importance of family leave. Then Trump put his daughter on the phone, and Pelosi chatted with Ivanka.
“We have responsibility to find common ground,” Pelosi said later. But, she added, Democrats would “stand our ground when we can't.”
To be sure, Democrats and Trump are preparing to fight over many issues, including his Cabinet choices, which will face tough Senate confirmation. Democrats oppose Trump’s promises to repeal the healthcare law and build a border wall with Mexico. They abhor his coziness with Russia and are concerned his campaign has emboldened white nationalists.
But unlike Republicans, whose preference is to shrink the size and scope of government, it’s in the DNA of Democrats to put government to work fixing the nation’s problems, something that Trump has endorsed at times.
Trump has called for a $1-trillion infrastructure program to rebuild roads, bridges and airports. He’s promised to reopen factories and prevent jobs from fleeing overseas because of trade deals. And he has spoken against cutting entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
Such campaign promises appealed to many blue-collar voters who traditionally align with Democratic lawmakers, and left small-government Republicans cringing over the president-elect’s apparent embrace of deficit spending to finance government job creation.
It’s no accident that the Democratic strategy for dealing Trump may only deepen the GOP’s internal fractures.
“We're far more on his side than the Republican senators and the Republican establishment,” Schumer said recently on Fox News. “We challenge him: You won blue-collar voters, President-elect Trump, because you happened to support a lot of Democratic issues. Don't break your promise to the blue-collar voter. Work with us.”
By taking a seat at the table rather than boycotting the White House as many Republicans did under President Obama, Democrats sense an opportunity to graft their priorities onto those of the president-elect, believing they may be able to sway the businessman, a former Democratic supporter whose views are less partisan.
To pass big-ticket items in Congress, Trump will almost surely need Democratic votes if GOP lawmakers remain split between their conservative and moderate camps. With an expected 52-seat Senate majority next year, Republicans will lack the 60 votes needed to advance most bills.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) warned over the weekend that there will be “pitchforks and torches in the streets” if Republicans fail to deliver on conservative priorities now that they have control of the White House and Congress.
But Pelosi has privately joked that Republicans in Congress will likely be reduced to little more than a “lounge act,” overshadowed by Trump.
One fertile area for compromise between Democrats and the new administration is family leave, championed by Ivanka Trump. The 35-year-old working mother stunned Republicans at the party convention in Cleveland — and Democrats watching at home — by outlining her interest in paid family leave, which has long been a Democratic priority.
She has since met with Republican women on Capitol Hill and been in close contact with the No. 4 Republican in the House, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the mother of a child with special needs. Rodgers recently paid a visit to Trump Tower.
“We’ll take a look and see if the trains meet any place,” said Rep. Lois Frankel, (D-Fla.) a former West Palm Beach mayor and incoming co-chair of the bipartisan Women’s Caucus. Frankel, also an ally of Pelosi, once worked with Trump on an airport issue in Florida.
Details will matter to some Democrats. For example, would a Trump administration also provide paid family leave for working fathers or same-sex parents? Frankel has been meeting with her GOP counterpart in the Women’s Caucus, Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.), who is also eager to find areas of possible common ground.
“What I like about Trump and the Trump leadership team is they love to negotiate — to wheel and deal. That bodes well for moving legislation forward,” Brooks said.
Many Republicans approached Obama with the intent of making him a one-term president, wielding their minority status — and later their majority — to block and oppose his initiatives, even when they tried to incorporate GOP ideas.
Democrats are betting that working with Trump might be a better strategy — a way to achieve some of their goals or, if not, hold the new president accountable for the promises he made to working-class voters.
Rep. Tim Ryan, the Ohio Democrat who has launched an uphill challenge to unseat Pelosi as minority leader, warned that Trump’s infrastructure plan — tax breaks for companies, rather than direct investment —looked like “a bunch of smoke and mirrors.” He predicted many Democrats would oppose that approach.
And if Trump attacks Democratic priorities such as funds for Planned Parenthood and Medicare, “we are going to have a Youngstown street fight in the Capitol,” Ryan told CNN.
But, the Democrat added, “If he has other opportunities where we can grow the economy, where we can invest in the working-class people, knowing that a third of working-class people are people of color, so this is our broad coalition, then we will look for places to work with him.”