A Tale Of Two Houses

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Back in high school, we all learned that there are two houses of Congress. One of them, the House of Representatives, is the “people’s house,” with members elected every two years and with the understanding that the “passions of the day” are more likely to show up in the House.

The Senate, on the other hand, is a more deliberative and small-c conservative body, with all kinds of checks and balances to force more deliberation, consultation and consensus building.

Right? Isn’t that what we learned?

Well, throw that textbook out, at least as far as the strategic visions of the Democratic caucuses in each chamber. House members aren’t sure what to do, while senators have coalesced around a more actively resistant posture, even though it’s likely that for the foreseeable future, the GOP will get its way in the end.

The two visions are well encapsulated in two Politico articles this week, one focusing on the House Democratic caucus and one on the Senate. Intriguingly, Marylanders are at the center of both discussions – but with very different visions of what resistance should look like.

In the House, Dems have been holding their annual retreat this week. It hasn’t been a lot of fun.

House Democrats are smack in the middle of an identity crisis as they head into their annual retreat Wednesday.
It’s the first caucus confab in years without a Democratic president to dictate policy from on high. And it’s clear that lawmakers are struggling to coalesce around a single message or the best strategy for taking on the most bombastic and unpredictable president in recent history. The path House Democrats choose will shape not just their electoral fortunes in 2018 but whether they can be at all relevant in the new Washington.

“The election was a reversal of fortune in many respects,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley told POLITICO. “I think this is very introspective.”

The biggest divide within the caucus is whether to jump headfirst into a four-year, fist-to-fist brawl with Donald Trump or stay on the current path of frequently needling the president but holding out for cooperation where possible.

Democratic leaders say there’s more than enough fodder to highlight — Trump’s cozy relationship with Russia, the rocky rollout of his refugee ban and his propensity to engage in petty Twitter fights about crowd size and the media — without having to go full obstructionist, for now.

“Opposition for opposition’s sake, even if we think the policies proposed are good for the American people… I think the public would not think that’s our responsibility or duty,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Tuesday.

There’s Steny Hoyer, staking out a “business as usual” approach to the situation. Some local congresscritters publicly disagree – but not from Maryland.

But some members, many of whom have never been in the House majority and are facing potentially many years in the wilderness, are ready to take on the White House, gloves off.

“This is a different world,” said Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond (D-La.). “There are no more rules, we’ve seen that.”

They’re even seeing a little bit of that bombastic style reflected in the new caucus chairman.

“What our caucus needs to know is that their leadership has backbone,” said Crowley, a New Yorker who has been the most pointed Trump critic in House Democratic leadership; he’s called the president a coward and described him as a puppet ruled by senior White House adviser Steve Bannon.

Crowley said he’s not looking to “get dragged down into the mud and to the pettiness of Donald Trump.” But, adding in his heavy New York accent, if the new president “wants to mix it up, we’ll go there too.”

That message and more is what rank-and-file rabble-rousers — many of whom challenged House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s leadership in December — want to hear.

“We cannot work with this guy,” Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), who voted against Pelosi, said of Trump. “I think at some point reality is going to hit leadership.”

Other House Democrats noted the Senate GOP’s wildly successful strategy of opposing Barack Obama at every turn. “That really hurt the Republicans,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said with a sly smile. “This is going to be a target rich environment and we should take advantage of that.”

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) has even said Trump is “leading himself” into impeachment.

But for now, there is a clear sense that the House caucus will not be the “party of no” that activists are demanding.

In the Senate, there’s a very different tone, and one of the key advocates for it is brand new Senator Chris Van Hollen.

Democrats believe that the more they can saddle Trump’s nominees with ethical baggage and cast them as ultra-conservative — DeVos was parodied on Saturday Night Live last weekend — the more the GOP will have to own any Cabinet members who prove controversial. That could make Democrats’ job easier in midterm election battles in red states. They’re looking at a brutal 2018 map, defending seats in 10 states that Trump carried.

Democrats from states Trump won leaped into the fight against DeVos, despite TV attack ads from conservative groups that tarred her critics as “full of rage and hate.”

Drawing out that confirmation battle until the very last minute was “well worth our time” to see whether a Republican vote could be changed, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said in a brief interview. “The same for the rest of them. They’re all really controversial this week,” said Tester, who is up in 2018.

Even after the quartet of contentious Cabinet nominees this week, Democrats are laying the groundwork to drag out votes on Environmental Protection Agency nominee Scott Pruitt and Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), Trump’s pick for White House budget director.

Liberal groups are egging on Democrats. Some activists unrealistically raised expectations among the party’s base about derailing DeVos. One organizer told protesters at a Monday night rally outside the Capitol that he was “very confident” Democrats could prevail.

But Democrats see little downside to the quixotic Cabinet fights. They’re hoping to capture enthusiasm from outside the Beltway and channel it into a political strategy — in a replay of 2009 and 2010, when the GOP largely co-opted the tea party movement to sap Obama’s momentum.

To that end, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee sent out a list-building email to capitalize on the party’s all-night charge against DeVos.

“They’ve awakened a sleeping giant. Some of these people were already activated, but many are coming into the political process for the first time,” Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the DSCC, said in an interview. “If Trump continues down the path that he’s going, that will create more opportunities in more states.”

Standing up for what you believe in, drawing stark contrasts whenever possible, and staking a huge fight on health care (more on this vital issue coming from me next week) is, in my humble opinion, the way to go. It’s one thing to lose, but if you lose and nobody knows what you stand for, things are likely to get worse before they get better. And forcing the GOP to own every stupid decision that Donald Trump makes is likely to pay dividends in the end. Give me the Van Hollen Way over the Hoyer Way every time.

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