Politics

Democrats Have Ways to Check Trump (Prayer Is Just One)

Republicans are set to dominate Washington, but there are soft spots.

Bray on.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

I asked some top Congressional Democrats what they can do to check Donald Trump and the Republican House and Senate majorities. The answer: prayer.

OK, that was a joke. Sort of. With a 23-seat majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, Republicans can push through most measures without support from any Democrats. In the U.S. Senate, Republicans can confirm executive branch and judicial nominees, except for the Supreme Court, with a simple majority; they hold a 52-to-48 advantage. Through a shortcut in the budget process called reconciliation, they can pass important spending and tax measures.

Still, congressional Democrats, especially in the Senate, have some weapons. They include:

Divide and try to conquer There are potential schisms to exploit between congressional leaders and the president. House Speaker Paul Ryan is a principled ideological conservative with some fringe right-wingers in his caucus. Trump believes in Trump.

That affords opportunities for Democrats on issues like big infrastructure projects. Trump has vowed to spend billions rebuilding roads and bridges, something conservative Republicans have resisted in the past. 

Likewise, Trump says he wants to keep some provisions of President Barack Obama's health-insurance system while congressional conservatives are bent on total repeal. That's another opportunity to sow division, since Democrats know that it's economically impossible to keep popular provisions while killing the Affordable Care Act.

Focus on the radicals Democrats can't stop most of Trump's nominees, but they can peel off a few Republicans to join them in going after the most radical ones. Senate Republicans will want to give the new president his preference on appointments, but experience suggests that it may be possible to rally opposition to a few -- in Trump's case, maybe more than a few. If Democrats unite -- and there's no guarantee that they would -- it only would take three Republicans to reject a nominee.

Some Democrats, like Oregon Senator Jeff Markley, are trying to drum up opposition to Steve Bannon, the far-right provocateur who Trump has tapped as his top White House counselor. That's a loser -- however dubious Bannon's character might be, the position doesn't require confirmation and Trump won't back down. 

There's a compelling case to fight the nomination of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions for attorney general -- in 1986 the Senate turned him down for a federal judgeship because of insensitive things he said about black people. But that happened before Sessions joined the Senate. Battling him now may be a waste of time for Democrats because the Senate rarely rejects one of its own.

Filibuster In 2013, Democrats weakened the venerable filibuster rule by lowering the threshold from 60 votes to 51 for approval of executive and judicial nominees. The exception was the Supreme Court, so Democrats would need just 41 votes to block the appointment of a successor to the late Justice Antonin Scalia. That's assuming Republicans don't decide to extend the filibuster ban to Supreme Court appointments.

Economic leverage The filibuster remains in place for legislation, meaning Democrats retain power to block much of the Republican economic agenda that can't be resolved in reconciliation. A big example: Replacing Obamacare. For starters, Democrats could seek bargaining leverage by threatening to withhold their votes to increase the debt ceiling, which Congress will have to do early next year. But that tactic backfired when Republicans tried it several times in recent years.

Highlight contradictions and policy reversals Much of Trump's' campaign rhetoric was unrealistic, and backtracking has begun. Congressional Republicans may be able to enact their own versions of domestic initiatives, defense spending and immigration. But Democrats can extract a political and public relations price on the contrast between promises and performance.

But they better find some younger faces to make this case. Their devotion to the seniority system in committee assignments will come back to bite them if their spokesman on tax issues is 85-year-old Michigan Representative Sandy Levin, the senior Democrat on the Ways and Means committee, or on housing or banking matters, 78-year-old Maxine Waters.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

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