BALTIMORE ― House Democratic leaders have said they’ll work with President Donald Trump when they can find common ground. But a few weeks into his presidency, they’re united against him, and Trump is to thank for that.
For months, Democrats have talked about the prospect of passing an infrastructure investment bill with Trump. It’s one of few issues they could point to where the president has signaled support for something they like. If they could collaborate with him on a $1 trillion spending package that creates jobs and fixes the nation’s crumbling roads, they could actually get something done that they care about instead of just opposing him at every turn.
But there is no bill. In fact, Trump isn’t even talking about infrastructure anymore. That’s left House Democrats with even less to work with, as they game out their strategy for the next four years, and even more reason to fight.
“A number of us were hopeful initially that there might be some things ― given the fact that he would be president for four years ― that we might be able to work on with him,” Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) told The Huffington Post on Thursday. “The actions that he’s taken so far have not spoken to that hope or aspiration that that could take place. And I think in many respects, that has begun to outweigh maybe the ability to work with him.”
Crowley, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, was among dozens of lawmakers at their party’s annual retreat this week. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was there too, and her tone was markedly less optimistic about the prospect of working with Trump on another issue he and Democrats like: better trade deals for American workers.
“So far, we haven’t seen anything from the administration that would justify any kind of cooperation,” she told reporters. “The president said he’s going to renegotiate [the North American Free Trade Agreement]. Take action, we can work with you on that. We have seen nothing from them.”
To be sure, Democrats don’t have much power in Congress these days, particularly in the House. Trump doesn’t necessarily need their votes to pass bills in that chamber, and they’re going to have to get used to disappointments. But if the president is already backing away from the few Democrat-backed ideas he’s floated, he’s creating an environment where Democrats won’t work with him on anything, regardless of what it is.
That’s exactly what progressive voters want to happen, too. The Democratic base is the most energized it’s been in years, with millions of people fired up from last month’s women’s marches and newly engaging in the political process. Many have been clamoring for their elected officials to wage war on Trump.
Until now, party leaders like Pelosi have resisted that call. She and others have said they want to leave the door open to collaborating. But if there’s nothing for them to collaborate on, Democrats have little choice but to fight everything. That puts them on the same page with a base of voters that has arguably been out in front of Democratic leaders in driving the party forward.
It’s turning out that everything coming out of the White House is either unconstitutional or harmful to America." Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.)
The strategy is a bit different in the Senate, where Democrats have some power over Trump’s agenda and where they’ve already been voting on his cabinet picks. They’ve voted for some, and unanimously opposed others. Democrats there say they definitely feel pressure from voters back home to vote against everything, but they say it’s better to be pragmatic.
“Oh I hear it constantly,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a member of party leadership, told reporters this week. “Our base is very intense. Very emotional. Very committed. I love ‘em. But sometimes I have to tell them, ‘Please take a deep breath. This a marathon, it’s not a sprint.’ We need to make sure that we only oppose when we have to, support when we must, and have a clear message about what we stand for.”
But even Democrats turned off by the idea of opposing everything Trump does are starting to realize they’re already doing it.
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) said he’s been ready to work with Trump on things like a bill ratifying that the United States is pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But there is no bill, and in the meantime he’s horrified by the actions Trump has been taking, like signing an executive order temporarily banning U.S. entry to refugees and travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries. That’s tied up in court at the moment.
“It’s turning out that everything coming out of the White House is either unconstitutional or harmful to America,” Lieu said. “So, for me, it’s easy to oppose.”
He said he doesn’t expect to be able to support any of Trump’s proposals going forward either, so long as a certain White House aide has the president’s ear.
“I think it will remain that way as long as Steve Bannon is where he is,” Lieu said, referring to Trump’s strategy adviser who formerly led a website that promotes white nationalism. “It’s possible that Donald Trump could change. I hope he does for the good of the republic.”
Of course, some Democrats never had hope for working with Trump in the first place. Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), for one, has vowed to do everything he can to gum up Trump’s agenda. And Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) said while he’s all for investments in infrastructure, he doesn’t think this president is capable of advancing any kind of concrete policy proposal.
“The man was tweeting at Nordstrom about his daughter while he was supposed to be in an intelligence briefing,” Swalwell said. “I don’t believe there is even an infrastructure bill there.”
“He’s not a serious president,” he added.
Clarification: A previous version of this article suggested that Trump had proposed a $1 billion infrastructure plan; several proposals have been floated, but the more often-cited figure is $1 trillion.