In Age of Trump, Some Democrats and Republicans Explore Alliance

  • Business-minded, centrist House members talk vote clout
  • Discussing joining forces in looming infrastrucure, tax fights

Trump's Policy Timeline: Tax Reform and Bank Regulation

Away from the unbridled partisanship of the opening days of Donald Trump’s presidency, dozens of centrist House Republicans and Democrats are quietly sizing each other up as potential allies in the looming tax and infrastructure fights.

Pro-business House Democrats who call themselves the "New Democrat Coalition" and a group of Republican moderates gathered Wednesday without any fanfare in a Capitol Hill basement room to talk about joining forces -- and potentially combining their vote clout.

"There are 54 New Dems, and we have 54 members," said Representative Dan Donovan of New York, a member of the House Republican "Tuesday Group" of centrists. "That’s 108 votes, altogether."

"That’s a pretty powerful group," Donovan said, in the context of a 435-seat House chamber.

These lawmakers say they are exploring paths to middle grounds on a tax-code overhaul and infrastructure spending, as well as health care, the nation’s debt and other legislation.

Open Warfare

Of course, this high-minded talk of bipartisanship may not survive the open warfare over other hot-button issues, including immigration and abortion. And to have any real power, the centrists would at times have to take difficult, high-profile stands against their own party’s leaders, and perhaps Trump.

Attendance at this first meeting was decent, but not overwhelming. Fewer than half of the proclaimed 108 total members of the New Democrats and Tuesday Group Republicans showed up.

Those who did pointed to the tone Trump set during the campaign, when at times he sounded more like a Democrat on certain tax issues and infrastructure spending.

"We just want to get things done," said Representative Elizabeth Esty, a Democrat from Connecticut, another lawmaker whose district reflects the mostly moderate, swing-district nature of many of these lawmakers’ purple bases. "Lots of commonality," said freshmen Republican Representative John Faso of New York, of the lawmakers involved.

These two caucuses have gotten together in years before, but not like this.

Now It’s Different

They’ve met one time in each of the last two congressional sessions, and during the government shutdown in 2013. But members exiting the meeting Wednesday said this time is different. 

In Wednesday’s meeting, they decided to begin meeting more regularly this session, with an aim of forging some common agendas and goals.

"In these crazy political times, I think those are 108 members of Congress who are interested in making sure that there remain some bridges between the two parties and that we can, hopefully, find ways to hold hands and move the country forward," said Representative Jim Himes of Connecticut, chairman of the New Democrats and a former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. banker.

"I thought it was a good start," said Representative Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, a co-chairman of the Republican moderates. 

Infrastructure Cooperation

Neither Himes nor Dent wanted to discuss specific aspects or details of potential cooperation on legislation. But Dent said, "My general sense is the best area of collaboration is on infrastructure. Not to say there is not opportunity or hope on other issues -- health care and tax reform."

The discussion of an alliance comes against the backdrop of the outsized clout that the conservative Freedom Caucus has exerted in recent years. 

For the collection of moderate Republicans and Democrats to make a mark, they’ll have to occasionally step out of line from their respective party leaders’ edicts. 

Are these lawmakers willing to stand together on some tough issues in this politically charged atmosphere? "Potentially," said Republican Representative Greg Walden of Oregon, the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, who attended Wednesday’s meeting. He gave a presentation during the meeting about how he hoped some common agreements could be reached on a health-care overhaul.

‘Math Game’

"Its all a math game," added Walden, also pointing to the two group’s combined numbers.

Others weren’t all that impressed when told of the meeting, including the chairman of the Freedom Caucus.

"The Tuesday Group has 54 members?" Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina said with a smile, making a friendly dig at a perceived lack of real unity or solidarity among party centrists, beyond names on paper. 

The New Democrat Coalition is one of the largest House Democratic caucuses, and it carries significant weight inside the party.

But the Tuesday Group represents a smaller portion of the 240-member Republican Conference. And it likely would come under great pressure to follow the party line on close matters -- not only from Speaker Paul Ryan and other party leaders, but Trump and the White House.

‘Where They Are’

Dent says that "creates challenges." But he also said it remains for House Republicans of all stripes to see where, exactly, the new Trump administration stands on a lot of issues, and that "we want to get a sense of where they are."

He said that working with Democrats on such things as infrastructure spending to create jobs or the targeting of tax cuts may not necessarily mean opposing the president.

"There is real potential for collaboration," Dent said.

"There’s people in both parties who are saying, you know, you’re a heretic and traitor if you work with the other side," Himes added. "I think most Americans, the Americans we represent, want us to find ways to work together."

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