Democrats torched President Donald Trump as a racist this week — but they also know how to compartmentalize.
The toxic relationship between Trump and the opposition continues to hit new lows, but that’s not stopping Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her party from working with him to avert fiscal calamity and maybe even land his signature trade deal later this fall.
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Democrats in both chambers said they haven’t been surprised by Trump’s actions and they expect little change to their existing dynamic. When both sides need to get something done, they’ll work together. When they don’t, they won’t.
“We all know he’s a racist, this isn’t any new news to me or anybody,” said Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.). “Does that prevent us from [working together]? I don’t know. It creates a lot of noise around it, but for me, I always thought he was a racist.”
Vulnerable moderates don’t want to be seen as obstructionists. And other Democrats said they have little choice but to deal with the man who has the power to sign or veto their plans, particularly if they want to keep Washington running.
“I do think we can compartmentalize, absolutely. And I suspect that he can too,” said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.). “We’re going to continue to speak out. But he’s also still president for the next year and a half and we want to get legislation done.”
In the near-term, that includes a bipartisan deal to raise the debt ceiling and stave off budget cuts that would slash domestic and defense programs by billions of dollars — a scenario that Democrats are loath to let happen.
Pelosi is working quietly with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin on an ambitious budget agreement and cited progress Wednesday, a day after she ripped Trump from the House floor for his “racist” attacks. Mnuchin has warned congressional leaders that the government could reach its debt limit in early September, requiring action before Congress leaves for its August break.
When Congress returns from the recess, Trump must work with lawmakers on some kind of spending deal to avoid a government shutdown after Sept. 30.
And if he wants to see his trade deal with Canada and Mexico enacted — which would give him a major campaign talking point ahead of 2020 — the president will need the buy-in of Pelosi above all else.
Democrats have insisted upon changes to Trump’s new North American trade deal to beef up labor and environmental protections, but Pelosi continues to remain publicly open to bringing it to the House floor for a vote. She held the latest in a series of meetings with Trump’s top trade negotiator Robert Lighthizer on Tuesday.
Several Democrats said the latest Trump controversy, in which the president told four liberal congresswomen of color to “go back” to where they came from, won’t change things too much.
“For me and for other Democrats, we know that it is our job to try to get things done even working with somebody we feel really is deplorable,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), a member of Senate Democratic leadership. “The work on everything is done in spite of him, not because of his leadership.”
Aside from the must-pass items to keep the government afloat and the possibility of the new trade deal, Congress isn’t likely to do much legislating. But that should come as no surprise in a time of divided government.
More than Trump, it’s Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who is the “grim reaper” for House-passed bills addressing health care and gun control.
Meanwhile, House Democrats continue to aggressively pursue investigations into Trump and a growing number are pushing to open an impeachment inquiry. Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) will force a vote later Wednesday on whether to immediately consider articles of impeachment.
Some Democrats are waiting on former special counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony before the Judiciary Committee next week before embracing impeachment, saying privately he could tip the scales.
But other Democrats said that even trying to forcibly oust Trump from office wouldn’t stop them from working with him on other issues.
“Even during the time of Watergate, this country was able to do substantive things,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.). “We will respond forcefully but not let that obstruct governance. The question is, will the White House have the maturity to put the American people first?”
Democrats say after dealing with the president for more than two years, they know their relationship is likely to sink further, particularly as the 2020 election approaches.
“It absolutely affects the working relationships. There’s just no ifs, ands, or buts about it. It’s someone who’s just smearing you one day; he’s never reached out to me after the election,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who narrowly won reelection after the president campaigned hard against him.
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), a fierce Trump critic, said his latest diatribe could affect Democrats and Republicans’ ability to work together, including on budget talks.
“The fact that Republicans continue to stand up for him makes it hard for us to work in a bipartisan way. It’s an indicator of their willingness to support the president no matter what he does or says. That does not bode well for us,” she said. “It doesn’t create much of an opening for bipartisanship.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) paused when asked about the effect of Trump’s attacks, as if it couldn’t possibly be more difficult for him to work with Trump as a liberal Democrat: “Does it make a hard? Like it wasn’t hard before.”
“The difficulty of focusing on what’s important is made excruciating and tortuous because of these bombshell, racist tweets,” Blumenthal said. “Everybody knows we have to do a budget, we have to raise the debt ceiling. What makes it really difficult is not so much the tweets but the unpredictably and irrationality of the White House and his inability to keep it in.”
For some Democrats, the answer is to work with administration officials instead of trying to connect with Trump directly. Pelosi has been negotiating solely with Mnuchin on a budget deal and with Lighthizer on trade.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said he deals with officials in the Trump administration who “behave much more maturely than he does.” He described a compartmentalizing that Democrats must do every day to shut out the president’s antagonistic rhetoric and penchant for controversy.
“Oh yeah definitely. Harder to work with the president. Now, not necessarily with everybody on the president’s team,” Kaine said. “We don’t do that much with the president. He’s off in his alternate universe.”