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House Democrats: It’s Leverage, Leverage, Leverage

Minority party huddles, again, to plot way back to power

Crowley wants his Democratic Caucus to capitalize on the public’s engagement on political issues that benefit his party. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Crowley wants his Democratic Caucus to capitalize on the public’s engagement on political issues that benefit his party. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

There’s little House Democrats can do to stop bills they don’t like or to slow down the legislative process during chamber proceedings. 

So the tactics they plan to explore at the minority party’s issues conference starting Wednesday in Baltimore — aside from their intense opposition to President Donald Trump — will be on how they can amplify concerns from constituents in Republican districts.

“Logic is prevailing,” Connecticut Rep. John B. Larson said. “It’s not so much what we’re going to do on the floor — because they pretty much ignore us — but they can’t ignore their own constituents.”

In recent weeks, several GOP lawmakers have faced backlash from people in their districts during town hall events over Republican efforts to repeal the 2010 health care law and over an executive order signed by Trump that temporarily restricted travel from seven Muslim-majority countries.

One member, California Republican Tom McClintock, was even escorted out of a town hall with the aid of police after he was sharply criticized over the GOP’s plan for replacing the health care law, as well as the immigration executive order.

[McClintock Town Hall Gets Rowdy]

A packed room in Grand Rapids, Michigan, erupted when GOP Rep. Justin Amash, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, suggested that the burden of replacing the health care law would fall to state governments once it is repealed.

Perhaps out of concern to avoid such incidents, and the sort of town hall spectacles that defined the summer of 2009, when Congress was debating the health care law, some Republicans are even refusing to have such constituent events at all.

GOP Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. of Tennessee, who is in his 15th full term, flat-out refused a request for a town hall, calling them magnets for “kooks.”

In response, people in his district have put together a “kookfest” protest in front of Duncan’s district office on Friday.

[Duncan Shrugs Off ‘Sore Losers’ in Refusing Town Hall Request]

GOP confusion

Democrats once sought to leverage a divided Republican Party to stymie what they saw as aberrant GOP policy goals. But with every town hall roughing-up that they witness, as well as the many wide-scale protests since Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration, Democratic lawmakers are watching the public do the work for them, in sowing confusion among Republicans.

That confusion is on top of the overall confusion resulting from the GOP’s attempts to unravel the complex health care law that affects millions of people.

 “At this point, we don’t have to do anything,” New York Democratic Rep. Joseph Crowley said. “It’s like brewing — just let it do it itself.”

Democratic House members told Roll Call on Tuesday that they plan to focus on a host of issues at their three-day retreat, including efforts to stop the repeal of the health care law, and finding ways to investigate reports that Russia meddled in the U.S. presidential election.

Crowley, who will lead his first retreat as chairman of the Democratic Caucus, said the party will still search for opportunities to leverage against what he and other Democrats see as a fractured Republican conference.

When it comes to the president, Crowley said Trump has been just as dismissive about working with congressional Republicans as he has been toward Democrats. He sees that as another leverage point his caucus can pursue.

“It might take some time for them to realize how disrespected they’ve been so far,” the congressman said. “I do think there will be opportunities given their propensity for division.

The Trump factor

Keep in mind, Crowley, like Trump, is a proud New Yorker who relishes a good fight, kind of like Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer. Crowley is even from the same borough as Trump, Queens.

Crowley said reactions from voters to the executive orders and memos coming from the White House and concern over the president’s Cabinet nominees were examples of people “reacting to the threat of the presidency.”

“It all comes down to the issue of leverage and when do we have leverage,” Crowley said.

At the retreat, there will also be a good look at what to expect in 2018.

After four straight elections of falling short of the majority in the House, Democrats said they are continuing to retool ways to reach voters personally. But Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, who is running to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said his party might want to take pointers from an unlikely source: Trump himself.

“Trump banging on fair trade, infrastructure and jobs helped him convince people of all colors that he might be somebody they can vote for,” Ellison said. “He’s already disappointed them, but the fact that he could get them to believe that demonstrates what we need to do.”

And if need be, Democrats could even team up with Trump to push for long-held goals of investing in the nation’s infrastructure. That could further scramble the deck among Republicans, whose caucus is peppered with deficit hawks who are skeptical of government spending for things like roads, bridges, dams and the like.

“Infrastructure is an area where consensus is possible. I say that, I hope it is true,” House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer said Tuesday at a keynote speech he delivered on the subject at the Brookings Institution.

He added that the “unprecedented” Trump administration brings “uncertainty” to any kind of negotiations over such a package. “We simply cannot talk about infrastructure investment … the same way we did a year ago,” the Maryland Democrat said.

House moves

Meanwhile, when asked if Democrats planned to partake in any more protest-like behavior in the chamber to demand they get their way, Crowley and Larson, a former Caucus chairman himself, were coy.

Democrats conducted a 25-hour siege of the chamber last June, calling for the House to vote on gun legislation following a mass shooting at an Orlando, Florida, nightclub.

Larson said that action was a way for Democrats to resonate with voters outside the Beltway, instead of belaboring them with wonky Washington talk bellied with acronyms.

 “[Republicans] have done a better job at emotionally getting out to people and talking to them about issues,” Larson said.

Crowley said any opposition from Democrats in the House would be “peaceful.” He called it the “American way.”

Republicans have also fought back by backing a plan to fine members who conduct protests that violate the chamber’s rules of decorum.

At least for the time being, Democrats aren’t giving away any plans that might give the GOP reason to sic the sergeant-at-arms on them.

“We will have discussions overall, maybe not about specifics so as to not necessarily give the game plan away,” Crowley said. “But this will be a time for us to come together to have those moments to talk about what was effective in the past, what wasn’t.”

And ultimately, it’s about eventually getting back to the majority, as Hoyer made clear at his Brookings speech.

“It’s not a job I’ve sought, minority whip. Majority leader is a much better post,” Hoyer cracked, to laughs from the audience.

On Wednesday, he and his fellow Democrats get to start plotting their way back to majority status, as they have since 2011.

Kellie Mejdrich contributed to this report.Contact Rahman at or follow her on Twitter at @remawriter.

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