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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Dems Embracing the ‘Hardball’ Option?

Democrats concerned about their party’s future should read Adam Jentleson’s Washington Post article, “Senate Democrats have the power to stop Trump. All they have to do is use it.” Jentleson, senior strategic adviser at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and a former deputy chief of staff to Sen. Harry Reid, writes:

As a Democratic Senate aide for the past seven years, I had a front-row seat to an impressive show of obstruction. Republicans, under then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, decided they would oppose President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at every turn to limit their power. And it worked: They extorted concessions from Democrats with threats of shutdowns, fiscal cliffs and financial chaos.

McConnell is arguably the most effective obstructionist in the history of the U.S. Senate, and that is no small achievement. No living U.S. Senator has done more to thwart legislation and appointments favored by strong majorities of Americans in poll after poll.

But now, Jentelson writes, “Republicans’ unified control of government means that the most effective tool for popular resistance lies in the Senate — the elite, byzantine institution envisioned by the founders as the saucer that cools the teacup of popular opinion.” Further,

Senate Democrats have a powerful tool at their disposal, if they choose to use it, for resisting a president who has no mandate and cannot claim to embody the popular will. That tool lies in the simple but fitting act of withholding consent. An organized effort to do so on the Senate floor can bring the body to its knees and block or severely slow down the agenda of a president who does not represent the majority of Americans.

Jentleson explains how it can work:

The procedure for withholding consent is straightforward, but deploying it is tricky. For the Senate to move in a timely fashion on any order of business, it must obtain unanimous support from its members. But if a single senator objects to a consent agreement, McConnell, now majority leader, will be forced to resort to time-consuming procedural steps through the cloture process, which takes four days to confirm nominees and seven days to advance any piece of legislation — and that’s without amendment votes, each of which can be subjected to a several-day cloture process as well.

McConnell can ask for consent at any time, and if no objection is heard, the Senate assumes that consent is granted. So the 48 senators in the Democratic caucus must work together — along with any Republicans who aren’t afraid of being targeted by an angry tweet — to ensure that there is always a senator on the floor to withhold consent…Because every Senate action requires the unanimous consent of members from all parties, everything it does is a leverage point for Democrats. For instance, each of the 1,000-plus nominees requiring Senate confirmation — including President Trump’s Cabinet choices — can be delayed for four days each.

The moral justification for Democrats taking a turn at weilding the obstructionist cudgel should be obvious. As Jentleson puts it, “by nominating a poorly qualified and ethically challenged Cabinet, Trump forfeited his right to a speedy confirmation process, and Democrats should therefore slow it down to facilitate the adequate vetting that Trump and Senate Republicans are determined to avoid by rushing the process before all the questionnaires and filings are submitted.” Jentleson adds,

Democrats can also withhold their consent from every piece of objectionable legislation McConnell tries to advance. With 48 senators in their caucus, they have the votes to block most bills. But even when Democrats don’t have the votes, they can force McConnell to spend time jumping through procedural hoops. This is the insight McConnell deployed against Reid to manufacture the appearance of gridlock, forcing him to use the cloture process more than 600 times.

…If Democrats withhold consent from everything the Senate does until such a process is established, they can stall Trump’s agenda and confirmation of his nominees indefinitely. Sen. Richard Durbin has been a leader in demanding an independent investigation. But unless Democrats back their calls with the threat of action, McConnell will steamroll them and never look back.

It’s regrettable that Republicans have normalized obstruction of progress as a cornerstone principle of their identity. By reaching out to Democrats with appointments of political moderates and appealing to Dems to join him in a genuine bipartisan infrastructure project that really would restore America’s greatness in a tangible, visible way, Trump has a unique opportunity to bust the politics of knee-jerk obstructionism. He could end the gridlock by offering a bold, bipartisan spirit.

So far, he has done the opposite. His appointments and executive orders are not only  extremist; they are designed, not merely to accomplish political goals, but also to rub his power in the faces of moderates and progressives. Puppeteer Bannon has apparently convinced Trump that unleashing his inner jr. high school bully in all of his actions is a good image to project. Instead, it has earned Trump global ridicule.

Coming after McConnell’s roadblock of Obama’s nomination of the moderate Judge Merrick Garland, Trump’s nomination of right-wing Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court only adds to the toxic polarization of our politics. Democrats ought to use whatever leverage they can muster to delay Gorsuch’s confirmation, if not deny it. The Trump/Republican agenda has become so extreme that doing otherwise is capitulation to the bullying spirit that is ruining our democracy.

Senate Democrats are already showing signs of meeting the challenge limned by Jentleson. At Mother Jones, David Corn notes that “Schumer has not yet embraced such a strategy of resistance. But Senate Dems said on Monday that they will wage a filibuster to block Trump’s Supreme Court nominee.” Corn adds that Schumer will, however, oppose five Trump nominations: Rep. Tom Price to head Helath and Human Services, Rep. Mick Mulvaney for budget director, Steve Mnuchin for treasury secretary, Scott Pruitt for Environmental Protection Agency chief, and Andy Puzder for labor secretary.

Ed O’Keefe, Sean Sullivan and Kelsey Snell reported at The Post that “Democrats boycotted a Senate committee scheduled to take two votes, one on Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), Trump’s nominee for secretary of health and human services, and the other on Steve Mnuchin, his choice to lead the treasury… Democrats boycotted that meeting entirely, denying Republicans a necessary quorum and forcing them to reschedule both votes…Then, they blocked a vote on Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Trump’s nominee for attorney general.”

It may not be too late for Trump to reverse the damage done to himself, as well as our national interest. But time is running out. As Jentleson concludes, “If Trump wants to put their concerns about his legitimacy to rest, he can reach out with consensus nominees and policies…Until then, Democrats can stand up for America by withholding their consent.”

6 comments on “Dems Embracing the ‘Hardball’ Option?

  1. Jack Olson on

    If the voters were dissatisfied with McConnell as Minority Leader in 2009-2013, they would not have made him Majority Leader in 2014. If they were dissatisfied with McConnell as Majority Leader, they would not have let him keep the job.


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