WASHINGTON (AP) — Congressional Democrats are under intense pressure from the liberal base to oppose President Donald Trump at every turn, a dynamic that will color nearly every debate on Capitol Hill this year and complicate prospects for action on all issues.
It's sure to be a topic of debate as House Democrats gather for a policy retreat in Baltimore on Wednesday, but the 10 Senate Democrats up for re-election in states Trump won are under particular pressure. They must balance demands from their base to stand up to Trump with the need to appeal to independent and swing voters statewide. If these Democrats mishandle the moment, Republicans could potentially win a filibuster-proof 60-vote Senate majority in next year's elections.
That would give Trump and the GOP the ability to usher in major changes on a partisan basis, like President Barack Obama and Democrats did in passing "Obamacare," a terrifying prospect for Democrats.
"I would have to go live in another galaxy far, far away," said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., who's concerned about the re-election prospects of Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill. "We can't afford to lose McCaskill, we can't afford to lose her, but I don't know."
Democrats' stance toward Trump has hardened notably in recent weeks after Democratic senators took heat for their early votes in favor of some of Trump's first Cabinet picks.
In one much-noticed incident, reliably liberal Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island was booed by voters while trying to explain why he voted to confirm GOP Rep. Mike Pompeo to head the Central Intelligence Agency.
Liberal stalwart Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sherrod Brown of Ohio both had to defend their committee votes to approve Ben Carson to lead the Housing and Urban Development Department. Thousands showed up outside Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer's home in Brooklyn to demand he stiffen his spine against Trump.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, by contrast, one of a handful of Senate Democrats seen as potential candidates for president in 2020, has won praise from liberal bloggers for voting against nearly all of Trump's picks. Her stance highlights a division between those Democratic lawmakers eyeing a White House run in 2020, and increasingly embracing purely oppositional stances toward Trump, and the senators who will face voters in red states next year and who in several cases are still talking about their desire to find common ground with the president.
"My job is to do what Hoosiers want me to do," said Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, who is up for re-election in a state Trump won big. "And so where there are chances to work together with President Trump such as keeping jobs in the United States," Donnelly said he'd be grateful for Trump's help.
By contrast Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, also seen as a potential presidential candidate, views his role as opposing Trump. Booker said his hopes for potential areas of Democratic compromise with Trump have been dashed by the president's actions.
"He's got a scorched earth policy, not a common ground policy, so I have no more illusions," Booker said. "When it comes to Trump I'm in a posture of fighting him, resisting him and trying to stop him from hurting people."
Such views have ground action in the Senate to a crawl on Trump's Cabinet picks, as Democrats respond to voter anger by dragging out debate as long as possible, holding all-night sessions this week after boycotting committee votes last week.
How it will play when Congress confronts must-do votes on spending bills later this year to keep the lights on in government remains to be seen. Lawmakers also will confront a deadline later this year to raise the government's borrowing limit or send the nation into unprecedented default. That's apart from the lengthy legislative agenda Trump is hoping to get through Congress, including repealing and replacing the health care law and overhauling the tax code.
Some Democrats may look for chances to extract concessions or compromise, but for now the loudest voices are coming from the left which is counseling against making any deals with Trump. Donations are pouring in to Democratic lawmakers and groups, and some Democrats point out that a strategy of pure opposition to Obama worked for Republicans who went from being in the minority on Capitol Hill to now controlling the House, Senate and White House.
"If you think you're going to be able to win in a red state that Trump won by being closely aligned to Trump, you're going to be shown to be quite in error," said Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., criticizing Senate Democrats he says have not been firm enough against Trump. "Your best bet you could do is make sure that Donald Trump and his policies are known to be unpopular and you're running against that."
Such sentiments drew an angry retort from Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a conservative Democrat up for re-election in a red state. He said the liberal base, with its threats to mount primaries against Democrats who don't vote against Trump at every step, risks endangering Democratic senators' re-election chances and driving them into a powerless minority.
"If that's what you want, God bless you then go out and earn it. Start basically primary-ing everybody," Manchin said. "That beats them up so bad that they can't get through a general election when they should be able to get through a general election."