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Democrats have a new and surprising weapon on Capitol Hill: Power

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 4/2/2017 Kelsey Snell
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) speak at a March news conference. The two have found their party fortified by the GOP’s increasing openness to Democratic help in avoiding a government shutdown. © J. Scott Applewhite/AP Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) speak at a March news conference. The two have found their party fortified by the GOP’s increasing openness to Democratic help in avoiding a government shutdown.

Democrats in Congress have a new and surprising tool at their disposal in the era of one-party Republican rule in President Trump’s Washington: power.

It turns out that Republicans need the minority party to help them avoid a government shutdown at the end of April, when the current spending deal to fund the government expires. And Democrats have decided, for now at least, that they will use their leverage to reassert themselves and ensure the continued funding of their top priorities — by negotiating with Republicans.

“I think we have a lot of leverage here,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). Republicans “are going to need our help putting together the budget, and that help means we can avoid some of the outrageous Trump proposals and advance some of our own proposals.”

The fact that Republicans need Democrats to vote for a temporary spending measure to avoid a shutdown gives Democrats leverage to force the GOP to abandon plans to attack funding for environmental programs and Planned Parenthood. And it also allows Democrats to block Trump’s top priority — the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border — which the president seeks to factor in to this latest round of budget negotiations.

It comes at a time when Republicans on Capitol Hill are badly divided and President Trump’s ambitious agenda — a health-care overhaul, his 2018 budget blueprint, a tax proposal and an infrastructure program — has yet to get off the ground.

Since the failure of the House GOP’s health-care plan, Trump has signaled he may work with Democrats to achieve major goals. Coupled with the negotiations over the spending measure, such a statement could foreshadow a major and unexpected power shift in Washington in which the minority party has far more influence in upcoming legislative fights than was initially expected.

“I think most of our caucus wants to work with them,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) in a recent interview, referring to the GOP. “But it requires working in a compromise way.”

But cooperation with their GOP counterparts — and possibly even with Trump — is a risky move for congressional Democrats, who are being pressured by the more liberal wing of their party to obstruct the GOP and Trump at all costs. Part of that energy is playing out in the Senate over the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, as Democrats have vowed to block his confirmation, potentially leading to an explosive fight next week to change Senate rules.

Hill Democrats are betting voters will view any attempt to compromise on spending as further evidence that the fractured GOP is unable to govern. If the talks fail and a shutdown approaches, voters might then blame Republicans for failing to keep the government open despite their control of the House, Senate and White House, several Democratic aides reasoned.

There is a sense among many Democrats that bipartisanship isn’t necessarily toxic, even in an environment in which ardent liberals continue to protest at town hall meetings. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democrats think voters see Democrats taking steps to defend existing policies — such as battling the American Health Care Act or blocking funding for a border wall — and understand the big picture.

“It’s an interesting time,” Pelosi said “Let’s understand and let the public understand what the debate is.”

Without Democratic help, Republicans are unlikely to unite behind a temporary spending plan to keep the government open past April 28. That does not even address the larger battle expected to take place over the fiscal 2018 budget in which Trump has proposed a $54 billion increase in defense spending to be compensated for by cuts to 18 domestic agencies and programs.

Democrats have already flexed their muscle by refusing to support the funding of Trump’s border wall as part of the temporary measure. They also rejected a proposal by the Trump administration to include in that measure a $30 billion spike in defense spending and $18 billion in cuts to domestic programs.

“I think it’s clear that putting border money into this without a plan for how it’s spent is unacceptable,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

But that doesn’t mean Democrats won’t support some minor compromise on defense spending and border security. Some Democrats have privately floated the idea that they might be willing to tap an off-budget war fund to help pay for some increases in defense and border spending, an idea neither Pelosi nor Schumer would rule out.

“We would not be opposed to any border security measures that are not the wall — increasing technology,” Pelosi said at a Thursday news conference. “There are better things that we can be doing.”

Schumer was similarly supportive.

“If they asked for $200 million for more electronic surveillance and drones on the border, I don’t think that would cause many hackles in our caucus,” he said.

Republican leaders appeared in recent days to be open to that kind of compromise. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said leaving defense spending increases and money for the border wall out of the short-term spending negotiations wouldn’t be a dealbreaking problem.

“It doesn’t mean that you can’t come back to that smaller package and see if there’s not some future way to do it,” Blunt said.

But any appetite for compromise could end next week, when the two sides are expected to clash over Gorsuch’s nomination.

Democrats are planning to exploit Republicans’ narrow 52-48 advantage in the Senate to slow a vote on Gorsuch. Schumer said he will force Republicans to get 60 votes on a procedural motion before the Senate can vote on the nomination. 

Fallout from the very public battle over Gorsuch could play a critical role in whether spending talks stay on track. Democrats privately fear Trump will grow angry over the spectacle and demand funding for the wall, aides said.

There is also a chance GOP members and Trump will cool off during a two-week Easter recess just before a final spending deal is expected. Members of the Appropriations Committee hope to spend that time negotiating roughly 200 remaining issues, including Republican attempts to roll back some Obama-era financial regulations.

Clashes over similarly tacked-on provisions, typically known as “riders,” have for years prevented Congress from completing the regular appropriations process. Democrats have uniformly rejected Republican attempts to attach to spending bills riders that attack Planned Parenthood, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street regulation legislation.

“We want legislation that meets the needs of the American people and does not have the poisonous riders in it,” Pelosi said Thursday. “We have to see the substance of what is in the bill.”

Those fights have been somewhat muted this year as Republicans have used other means to begin chipping away at regulations implemented under President Obama. Congress has already taken steps to roll back Obama’s Clean Power Plan and regulation of streams, two issues Republicans previously tried to address through riders.

“A good handful of the measures . . . have been addressed,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). “It doesn’t mean that there are not still issues that present themselves in the subcommittee budget, but I think it’s going to be a little bit easier.”

Republicans have also hinted that they will not attempt a fight on Planned Parenthood. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters last week he did not think a spending bill was the right place for the abortion fight and suggested conservatives take up the fight under special budget rules known as “reconciliation.”

“We think reconciliation is the tool, because that gets it into law,” Ryan said. “Reconciliation is the way to go.”

It is unclear whether Republicans who oppose abortion rights will be satisfied with that path. A group of 77 antiabortion organizations wrote to lawmakers Friday demanding that they continue to try to end federal support for Planned Parenthood. But they, too, focused on using reconciliation.

Democrats bet Republicans will be willing to ignore demands from their most conservative members, many of whom routinely vote against spending bills over objections to all government spending. They also are convinced Republicans are quickly growing tired of being bullied by Trump.

Schumer said Trump’s idea of compromise is to propose something and give Congress no chance for input. That approach may work for now, but Democrats hope Republicans will eventually grow tired of Trump’s dictating their path and instead turn to Democrats to begin legislating.

“Our Republican colleagues are going along with that right now,” Schumer said. “But that’s not how many of them feel. I think many of them want to work in a bipartisan way.”

Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.

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