How Progressives Are Forcing Senate Democrats Into Action

Lawmakers wanted to choose their battles against Trump’s Cabinet nominees carefully, but activists have a different plan: Fight them all.

Aaron Bernstein / Reuters

In the days leading up to President Trump’s inauguration last month, Senate Democrats seemed to have settled on a strategy for taking him on.

It went something like this: Pick their battles and fight the Cabinet nominees they considered most unqualified or extreme. Stick together to oppose the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and other GOP efforts to dismantle the progressive gains of the Obama era. And wait for Trump to come to them seeking a deal on infrastructure, trade, or other issues where their priorities aligned.

The Democratic base, it turned out, had other ideas.

In protests across the country and in calls, tweets, and Facebook messages to senators over the first 10 days of Trump’s presidency, the party rank-and-file demanded a much simpler game plan: Fight him on all of it.

“Our members are frustrated with the idea that there’s any appointee that Democrats should put their name on,” said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of Democracy for America, the million-member grassroots advocacy group founded by former party chairman and presidential candidate Howard Dean. “People are waking up, and they want to see leaders in Washington standing with them and fighting against this unconstitutional overreach from the Trump administration. They don’t see that,” Chamberlain said. “Or rather, they weren’t seeing that.”

Activists saw the first results of their pressure campaign on Tuesday, when Democrats ground the already creaky gears of the Senate to a near-halt. Lawmakers boycotted committee votes on Steve Mnuchin to be treasury secretary and on Tom Price’s bid to become secretary of health and human services, stalling their nominations for the moment. They forced a 24-hour delay in the committee vote for Senator Jeff Sessions to become attorney general, and they protested—unsuccessfully—the advancement of Betsy DeVos’s nomination for education secretary out of committee. Democrats even made Rex Tillerson wait one more day before winning approval as secretary of state. And in a largely symbolic gesture on the Senate floor, Minority Leader Charles Schumer of New York voted against the nomination of Elaine Chao for transportation secretary. In doing so, he opposed the wife of his Senate counterpart, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and a nominee the Democrats considered among the most qualified and least controversial of any Trump had picked.

None of these moves were likely to have any lasting impact—the math is against the 48 Senate Democrats, and they cannot defeat any Trump nominees for the Cabinet without GOP defections. Chao won confirmation in a blowout 93-6 vote, Tillerson will start his job on Wednesday instead of Tuesday, and Sessions advanced out of committee with only a day’s delay. As for Mnuchin and Price, Republicans wasted no time in voting to change the rules of the Finance Committee to approve their nominations without Democrats present.

Democrats merely wanted to send a message to Trump, and just as clearly, to their constituents back home: We heard you.

“When people across our country are looking at what President Trump is doing, they are appalled and they are looking to us in Congress to fight back,” Senator Patty Murray, a member of the Democratic leadership, said on Tuesday. “Democrats are going to keep fighting back. We are going to stand with people across the country.”

After a shocking election that many Democrats consider tainted, if not wholly delegitimized, by Russian interference and the actions of FBI Director James Comey, party leaders knew from the start they would have a difficult time reconciling the passions of progressive activists with the more pragmatic posture of several Democratic senators, especially those who are facing 2018 reelection races in states that Trump won. But the level of anger across the country has still caught both lawmakers and grassroots organizers off-guard. Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Cory Booker of New Jersey were among many elected Democrats who raced to join thousands of people who showed up at U.S. airports on Friday night and Saturday to protest one of Trump’s executive orders, which halted the refugee program and bans travel into the United States from seven majority-Muslim countries.

To be sure, Democratic lawmakers didn’t adopt a more confrontational stance simply because of the protests or feedback from their constituents. The party lined up in opposition to Mnuchin, Price, Sessions, and DeVos immediately, and they had warned Republicans not to try to rush them into office before they had a chance to fully vet them. “I think the protests and the actions from Democratic senators are mirrors of each other. I don’t think one is pushing the other,” Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut said in an interview. “This is just an exceptional moment in which we have to be united in pushing back against this destructive and hateful agenda.”

Yet the frustration with the Senate Democrats’ pick-and-choose battle strategy had begun bubbling up days before Trump’s immigration order. Liberals were appalled to see stalwart allies like Warren and Bernie Sanders supporting the first two Trump nominees to win confirmation by the Senate: Defense Secretary James Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. The uproar crested days later when Warren cast a committee vote in favor of Ben Carson’s nomination for secretary of housing and urban development. Democrats had criticized Carson’s lack of experience in housing policy, but they mostly laid off him during his confirmation hearing, failing even to ask him whether he had believed, as his spokesman told The Hill shortly after the election, that he was unqualified to lead a Cabinet agency.

To Democratic activists, that vote encapsulated everything that was wrong about the party’s posture in the Senate. Even Cher took notice.

“Every single one of these nominees has been extreme, corrupt, unqualified,” Chamberlain said. “There is no argument that can be made that Ben Carson is qualified to be secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. His only qualification is that he’s lived in a house.”

As the reviews came pouring in on social media, Warren posted a lengthy defense of her vote on Facebook. She had sent Carson a lengthy list of questions, and in response, she said he had “made good, detailed promises, on everything from protecting anti-homelessness programs to enforcing fair housing laws. Promises that—if they’re honored—would help a lot of working families.”

She further explained:

Yes, I have serious, deep, profound concerns about Dr. Carson’s inexperience to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Yes, I adamantly disagree with many of the outrageous things that Dr. Carson said during his presidential campaign. Yes, he is not the nominee I wanted.

But ‘the nominee I wanted’ is not the test.

Groups like, Democracy for America, and Our Revolution are now pushing Senate Democrats to oppose all Trump nominees and use every procedural tool they can to stall action in the Senate until Trump reverses course on the immigration order and his broader agenda. Yet even as Democrats dial up the obstruction, they are unlikely to go that far. Our Revolution is the grassroots coalition that grew out of Sanders’s presidential campaign, yet the Vermont senator voted for both Mattis and Kelly. “It did come as a surprise to me,” said Shannon Jackson, a former senior adviser to Sanders who is now executive director of Our Revolution. Jackson refused to criticize him, however. “I trust the senator made his decision based on the ideals and issues he had promoted his whole life,” he said.

The choices for Senate Democrats will only get harder from here, with the stakes for upcoming battles much higher than the confirmation of Cabinet officials who will serve for a few years at most. Next up is the Supreme Court, and the party is already showing signs of a divide between those who are pushing for a filibuster of Judge Neil Gorsuch’s nomination and those who believe Democrats should preserve that tool for a future vacancy that could alter the ideological balance on the bench.

The hopes for bipartisan collaboration on legislation have dimmed amid the furor over Trump’s executive orders. But Schumer signaled Tuesday that he would not totally abandon the open-minded position he took immediately after the election. “We have said all along we will be guided by our values,” Schumer told reporters. “If tomorrow, President Trump fulfills a campaign promise and says, ‘Get rid of the carried-interest loophole,’ we won't block it because his name is on it,” he added, referring to a tax increase on hedge-fund managers that both Democrats and Trump have backed.

At the heart of the debate over the Democrats’ strategy is the question of whether they should just treat Trump the way Senate Republicans treated former President Barack Obama. Throughout Obama’s tenure, and particularly early on, they launched a record number of filibusters to slow down the Senate and ultimately limit how many nominees Democrats could confirm and how much legislation they could pass.

Democratic leaders have said they don’t want to mimic the tactics McConnell used when he was minority leader, in part because it goes against the party’s core belief that a functioning government can be a force for good. As Adam Jentleson, who served as a top aide to former Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, told me just before Trump took office: “We believe in getting things done, and no leader would ever be able to hold Democrats together the way McConnell did because we believe in government.” Now a senior adviser for the Center for American Progress Action Fund, Jentleson has since argued that Democrats need to use the leverage they have in the Senate—the ability to withhold consent and delay—to force Trump’s hand.

It’s that tension, between support for the idea of government and a rising anger at the man running it, that is now gripping Democrats as they listen to demands from their base to shut down the Senate. “It’s not obstructionism for its own sake,” Chamberlain reasoned. “It’s to stop Trump from dismantling our institutions.”

Clare Foran contributed reporting.