The 12 Democrats who represent House districts won by Donald Trump were supposed to be easy marks for the deal-making new president.
Instead, they’re giving him the stiff-arm.
“I do come from a district that did flip to Trump this time, but I don’t think they should be reading that as a slam dunk,” said Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.). “I’m not going to support crazy up here.”
After last week’s collapse of the GOP effort to scrap Obamacare — fueled partly by resistance from conservative House hard-liners — Trump and his allies have hinted that outreach to Democrats may soon be on the way.
But Trump’s polarizing agenda and early stumbles have stiffened the resolve of moderate Democrats once spooked by his success in their districts. Though most say they’re willing to work with Trump if he’s sincere about seeking common ground, they’re also not rushing to his side. And his recent overtures toward bipartisanship, they say, are falling flat.
“I mean, will they attract one or two Democrats on whatever piece of garbage they want to offer? Maybe,” said Rep. Jim Himes, chairman of the centrist New Democrat Coalition.
But early talk from the White House about corralling a few Democratic votes has to stop, the Connecticut Democrat added. “If they really want to get something done … they better leave the ‘picking off’ language behind and start talking about what we would need.”
Democrats have pointed to investing in infrastructure and reducing prescription drug prices as two areas of potential cooperation with Trump.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Tuesday that “there’s a whole host of issues” where the parties can find common ground, including health care, infrastructure and tax reform. “We’d love to have as much support as possible,” he said.
But Trump is operating from a position of weakness. His first legislative effort — to repeal Democrats’ top legislative achievement of the past decade — lies in tatters. His approval rating is in the gutter, and an active FBI investigation into his associates’ contacts with Russian officials has left a dark cloud over his administration.
And despite talk of working with Democrats, Trump’s actions suggest otherwise.
In another confrontational tweet Thursday morning, he vowed to go hard against his critics: “We must fight [the Freedom Caucus], & Dems, in 2018!”
Trump has spent the early months of his administration pursuing a conservative and controversial agenda, which has provoked intense backlash from the Democratic base and pressure to oppose the White House.
The president is also picking fights with Democratic leaders, who have happily returned fire. Democrats say there’s been little serious outreach from the president to begin forging relationships across the aisle.
Aides to House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California and her top deputy, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, say there’s been no contact from the White House since the GOP health care bill’s collapse.
A senior administration official suggested this week that posture may be about to change. The official suggested the White House would start with outreach to Hoyer and try to leverage its limited relationship with the Congressional Black Caucus, which Trump hosted at the White House last week.
The White House also has started reaching out to rank-and-file Democrats, with limited success. Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) turned down the chance to meet with White House staff, an opportunity facilitated by Maine GOP Rep. Bruce Poliquin.
“My feeling is that the Trump White House has taken a ‘scorched earth’ approach so far,” Lynch said in a statement. “I felt like they were trying to divide our party, so I declined the invitation.”
Himes has had similar conversations with Poliquin and said he’s open to the White House face time but that nothing formal has been set up.
Rep. Scott Peters of California, a moderate Democrat, said: “If Donald Trump wanted to come to me with policies that are sensible, I’m not going to withhold my support because it’s Donald Trump. … I just don’t see it right yet.”
Pelosi said Thursday she’s “not concerned” about direct contact between the White House and rank-and-file Democrats.
There’s also little reason to think Hoyer will go rogue on his own Democratic leadership team.
Trump squeaked out his election victory with a surprising show of strength across the Midwest and among blue-collar voters that have often supported Democrats. But his voters also showed a penchant for splitting their tickets to support down-ballot Democrats.
Trump crushed Clinton by 30 points in Minnesota’s 7th District, where Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson still eked out a win. Trump won by 4 points in the district of Iowa Democratic Rep. Dave Loebsack and by a point in the districts of New Hampshire Democrat Carol Shea-Porter and Illinois Democrat Cheri Bustos.
Bustos, though, said the failed drive to repeal Obamacare has energized opposition to Trump in her district.
“I have a swing district. You would’ve thought that I had a 95 percent Democratic district if you went to my town hall this weekend,” she said. “We have Democrats going home to standing ovations.”
Democrats also are leery of helping Trump bounce back from his challenging first months in office, especially with his long history of stoking partisan fury and his routine jabs at Democratic leaders, like calling Pelosi “incompetent” and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York a “clown.”
Some Republicans have encouraged more across-the-aisle cooperation.
Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), head of the centrist Tuesday Group caucus, told reporters this week that he has had “many conversations” with Democrats about opportunities to work together on health care. Standing alongside him at a Capitol Hill news conference, Ohio Gov. John Kasich — himself a former House veteran — berated lawmakers for failing to engage in a bipartisan way.
“Somebody’s got to start breaking the logjam in this country,” the former GOP presidential contender said.
In some respects, forging a coalition with Democrats could be an easier lift for the White House than dealing with a fractious and deeply divided Republican House conference.
The conservative Freedom Caucus has bedeviled House leaders for years, effectively ousting Speaker John Boehner and now making serious trouble for Speaker Paul Ryan.
Even as House Democrats are motivated to frustrate Republicans’ agenda, they’re still loath to foreclose the possibility of negotiations with Trump.
“Unlike the Freedom Caucus, where you give them half a loaf and they burn down the bakery, give us half a loaf and we’ll be at the table,” Himes said.
Though Trump has done little direct outreach to Democrats, one notable exception has been his nod to the Congressional Black Caucus, which he recently hosted in the Oval Office. White House aides pointed to that meeting, which came after Trump awkwardly asked a black journalist to schedule the gathering, as a sign Trump is willing to reach outside the Republican tent.
One CBC member, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), also visited Trump separately to pitch legislation on competition in the pharmaceutical industry, part of a shared goal to reduce rising drug prices.
But Trump would be mistaken if he views the largely liberal group as a “renegade caucus” to help Republicans clinch wins on their legislative agenda, said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.).
“We’re not going to try to hold the [Democratic] caucus hostage for our own narrow interests,” he said.
Tara Palmeri contributed to this report.
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