Trump Faces Skeptical Democrats as He Eyes Bipartisan Deals

  • President’s pivot comes after agenda stalls, polls drop
  • Democrats want action on infrastructure, drug costs, spending

Trump Signals an Outreach to Skeptical Democrats

Donald Trump wants to start working with Democrats. He might start by picking up the phone.

The president hasn’t called the top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer since before Inauguration Day, according to a person familiar with their relationship, limiting their interactions to a handful of events.

It doesn’t help that Democrats have been dismayed by Trump’s highly partisan first two months in office, and his repeated attacks on his predecessor Barack Obama’s legacy. Add in Trump’s dismal 36 percent approval rating in the latest Gallup poll and Democrats have little additional incentive to collaborate.

The president may still mount a charm offensive. He hosted senators from both parties at the White House Tuesday evening, giving him a rare opportunity to chat with Schumer. Trump name-checked the New York Democrat during some brief remarks at the gathering and told the senators: “I know we’re all going to make a deal on health care very quickly.”

But the White House has spent little time so far talking about issues with potential bipartisan overlap, such as trade and infrastructure. Instead, Trump focused first on the aborted House GOP attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act and a series of executive orders and regulatory actions -- all aimed at undoing big chunks of Obama’s legacy.

‘We’re Ready’

After House conservatives helped torpedo the Obamacare repeal bill Friday, Trump told reporters that the 2010 health-care legislation was headed for disaster. “The Democrats don’t want to see this happen so they’re going to reach out, when they’re ready,” he said. “And whenever they’re ready, we’re ready.”

On Wednesday, though, 44 Democratic senators sent a letter urging the president to abandon his efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and rescind his Inauguration Day executive order requiring federal agencies to waive or delay Obamacare regulations. "We would welcome your sincere interest in bipartisan work" to improve the law, they said.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Monday that Democrats have been calling with suggestions of how they could work with Trump. But White House officials declined to offer any names or details of conversations. On Tuesday, Spicer said the administration will seek to build support in both parties for proposals to overhaul the U.S. tax code and spend $1 trillion worth of public and private money to shore up American infrastructure.

“We’re going to work with members on both sides of the aisle on both of those big-ticket issues to see where we can find agreement and move forward,” Spicer said.

Still, cutting bipartisan deals will be no easy task, with Democrats insisting that Trump meet their bottom lines on several issues.

On health care? “Drop repeal. Drop it today. And drop it for good,” said Schumer. On taxes? No big breaks for the wealthy, and drop plans for a partisan plan. On infrastructure? “We haven’t heard a peep out of the White House” about it, Schumer said Tuesday. On the budget? No cuts, parity between defense and non-defense spending and no poison-pill riders, he said.

April Deadline

The first deal Trump must cut is one to keep the government open past April 28, and here Republicans and Democrats mostly want him to get out of the way. Senate appropriators in both parties are planning to push off Trump’s plans to fund his border wall and dismiss out of hand his proposal to cut domestic agencies by $18 billion.

“We’re very close to agreement between the House and the Senate appropriators,” said Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas, who dismissed the idea of mid-year cuts and a proposal for a $1 billion trim to the National Institutes of Health in particular. “We’re not in a position to now start over.”

Democrats have slammed Trump’s wall and warned against trying to defund Planned Parenthood or domestic agencies lest he risk a government shutdown.

Trump could find some traction by courting a group seen as potential “Trump Democrats” -- 10 Democratic senators facing re-election in states he won. Each has talked of working with the president, but he has yet to reach out in a meaningful way.

Democrats’ Goals

Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, a member of Democratic leadership, said she’s still waiting to see what he will propose. “I certainly think we need to do tax reform and I certainly want the jobs that will come with an infrastructure bill. We need to rebuild America, that’s for sure,” she said.

Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio said he’s been insisting Congress “take care of mine workers and their widows” whose votes Trump campaigned for, and has long pushed to get tougher on trade. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin has been hoping Trump will embrace her “Buy America” provisions for federal projects in keeping with his own America First rhetoric. And Claire McCaskill of Missouri wants to work on legislation to bring down drug prices and assorted other issues.

“There hasn’t been much reaching out,” McCaskill said. “I look forward to working with the president on paid maternity leave,” citing a priority of Ivanka Trump. “I think that would be some place he could notch a win pretty quickly, if he was willing to work with us on that. I think he could work with us on infrastructure as long as he’s willing to make the public investment in the rural areas of my state that supported Donald Trump so heavily. His private plan isn’t gonna help people in rural Missouri with their roads and bridges.”

Drug Prices

McCaskill said she’d welcome Trump tackling drug companies that have engaged in “unconscionable price hikes” and in exacerbating the opioid crisis. Trump did invite Representatives Elijah Cummings of Maryland and Peter Welch of Vermont to the White House to discuss the problem of high drug prices earlier this month.

And Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, who’s facing re-election in a state Trump won by 36 points and had been considered by Trump for a Cabinet slot, said she hasn’t been presented with any ideas or any outreach yet.

She said she’s “willing to work with anyone,” but she wants to know “what’s in the range of the president’s thinking” first.

Democrats also face an avalanche of passionate anti-Trump sentiment from their base that will make cooperation hard.

Trump ‘Resistance’

“I had five town halls this weekend in largely Republican districts, and the anger and the frustration and the resistance to Trump is phenomenal,” Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, said Tuesday. “I walk into districts where I largely have people do nothing but thank me for fighting this battle against President Trump’s agenda.”

Adam Green, a co-founder of the pressure group Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said the Trump agenda and liberal agenda run in “completely opposite directions,” and argued that Democrats should only cooperate if Trump endorses progressive ideas like single-payer health care and “massive government investments without corporate giveaways.” But “that would be a fantasy world that is not going to happen,” he said in an email.

He indicated that Democrats are better off politically by working against Trump. “Democrats need to inspire 2018 and 2020 voters by pushing for big, bold, progressive solutions that tangibly improve people’s lives -- not appease or compromise with a president who is betraying working-class voters every day.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky talked up a bipartisan spending deal Tuesday but didn’t talk about bipartisan action on health care.

“Our Democratic friends now have the law that they wrote in place and we’ll see how that works out,” McConnell said.

— With assistance by Justin Sink

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