Protests, Pressure Help Capitol Hill Democrats Get Tougher

But the party infrastructure is keeping its distance from the demonstrations for now.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Rep. Brenda Lawrence, and other members of Congress hold small candles aloft in front of the Supreme Court during a news conference about President Trump's executive orders on Monday.
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Ben Geman and Karyn Bruggeman
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Ben Geman Karyn Bruggeman
Jan. 31, 2017, 8:01 p.m.

Large grass­roots protests against the White House agenda and act­iv­ist pres­sure on Demo­crats are help­ing to push law­makers in­to a harder line against Pres­id­ent Trump’s Cab­in­et picks.

But while Cap­it­ol Hill Demo­crats have been buoyed by the street act­iv­ism, the party’s polit­ic­al com­mit­tees are tak­ing an arm’s-length ap­proach to ac­tions like the huge Jan. 21 wo­men’s marches and week­end protests against Trump’s curbs on Muslim’s travel to the U.S.—in part be­cause they’re wary of ap­pear­ing to co­opt move­ments that grew or­gan­ic­ally.

In Con­gress, Sen­ate Demo­crats have raised the tem­per­at­ure of the con­firm­a­tion fights, for­cing delays in com­mit­tee votes on sev­er­al nom­in­ees. One pro­gress­ive law­maker said mem­bers see what’s hap­pen­ing at the grass­roots.

“I think the pub­lic voice does strengthen the de­term­in­a­tion to res­ist the path that the Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­ity is set­ting,” Sen. Jeff Merkley of Ore­gon told Na­tion­al Journ­al. Fresh­man Demo­crat­ic Sen. Chris Van Hol­len of Mary­land said the protests provide “great mo­mentum” over­all.

Out­side the Cap­it­ol, however, the party has only a lim­ited abil­ity to dir­ectly be­ne­fit from the mass protests. Na­tion­al cam­paign com­mit­tees, state parties, and can­did­ates are low on cam­paign staff and money at the mo­ment. The Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee is largely ham­strung un­til mem­bers elect a new chair later in Feb­ru­ary.

The can­did­ate field is still mostly un­settled in races ex­pec­ted to be com­pet­it­ive in the 2018 midterms. Even the two Vir­gin­ia Demo­crats run­ning in a high-pro­file race for gov­ernor this year are still in the pro­cess of hir­ing staff with their primary more than four months away.

However, the party’s lim­ited abil­ity to har­ness the en­ergy from the swell of anti-Trump protests isn’t ne­ces­sar­ily a bad thing, many Demo­crats say. In an anti­es­tab­lish­ment en­vir­on­ment, hav­ing a massive, grass­roots move­ment is more power­ful in the eyes of the pub­lic and the me­dia than one be­ing or­ches­trated or branded by the Demo­crat­ic Party.

If Demo­crats in­sert them­selves too ag­gress­ively in­to the protests, it could turn off some who identi­fy as in­de­pend­ents or those who sup­por­ted Sen. Bernie Sanders and are still sour over last year’s pres­id­en­tial-primary pro­cess.

“If the DNC or Pri­or­it­ies had tried to sit down and plot the Wo­men’s March, it would have failed,” said Guy Cecil, the chair­man of Pri­or­it­ies USA, the su­per PAC that sup­por­ted Hil­lary Clin­ton in 2016. “And so I think we need to give some space for the move­ment to breathe; we need to give new voices a chance to speak. It doesn’t dis­count ex­per­i­ence or people who have worked on cam­paigns. I’m one of them, but we’re not the only solu­tion to the prob­lem.”

In some in­stances, party of­fi­cials have found their ef­forts aren’t needed to dir­ect act­iv­ist en­ergy. One DNC staff mem­ber got in touch with the Flor­ida Demo­crat­ic Party this week about or­gan­iz­ing a protest out­side Pres­id­ent Trump’s Mar-a-Lago es­tate, timed to hap­pen while Trump is there vis­it­ing this week­end. But the Flor­ida Demo­crats re­por­ted back that a few loc­als had already cre­ated a Face­book event to or­gan­ize such a protest, and there are now nearly 4,000 RS­VPs.

Former Rep. Tom Per­ri­ello and Lt. Gov. Ral­ph Northam, the two Demo­crats run­ning for Vir­gin­ia gov­ernor, at­ten­ded the Wo­men’s March on Wash­ing­ton, and Per­ri­ello joined pro­test­ers ral­ly­ing against Trump’s refugee ban at Dulles In­ter­na­tion­al Air­port over the week­end. But, hes­it­ant to ap­pear as though he was com­mand­eer­ing or tak­ing cred­it for the protests, Per­ri­ello first en­cour­aged sup­port­ers in a tweet on Fri­day to donate to the Amer­ic­an Civil Liber­ties Uni­on, and waited un­til Tues­day to send out a fun­drais­ing email link­ing the protests to his cam­paign.

It’s early yet, but Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ives see reas­on to be op­tim­ist­ic that the cur­rent en­ergy will trans­late in­to sup­port for Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates. While not ex­pli­citly party-led, out­side groups have been ag­gress­ive in dir­ect­ing act­iv­ists to train their fire on mem­bers of Con­gress and elec­ted of­fi­cials by call­ing their of­fices and at­tend­ing loc­al town halls, rather than only donat­ing to pro­gress­ive or­gan­iz­a­tions, at­tend­ing ral­lies, or en­ga­ging on so­cial me­dia.

Web­sites and doc­u­ments like the “In­di­vis­ible Guide” and SwingLeft.org have also cropped up dir­ect­ing those dis­traught over Trump’s elec­tion to take these types of pro­duct­ive meas­ures. The guide dubs it­self “a prac­tic­al guide to res­ist­ing the Trump agenda,” and Swing Left dir­ects people to their nearest swing House dis­trict.

That’s not to say ma­jor Demo­crat­ic or­gan­iz­a­tions haven’t been do­ing any­thing to dir­ect the en­ergy. EMILY’s List held a boot camp for pro­spect­ive can­did­ates on the week­end of the Wo­men’s March in D.C. The DNC is also work­ing with state party staff to dir­ect vo­lun­teers to a call tool on their web­site to con­tact their U.S. sen­at­ors and en­cour­age them to op­pose Trump’s Cab­in­et nom­in­ees and Re­pub­lic­an ef­forts to re­peal the Af­ford­able Care Act. So far, vo­lun­teers have made 50,000 calls through the tool, ac­cord­ing to a DNC staff mem­ber.

In the Cap­it­ol, Merkley on Monday vowed to fili­buster Trump’s Su­preme Court pick, and on Tues­day Demo­crats forced at least a daylong delay in the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee vote on Jeff Ses­sions for at­tor­ney gen­er­al. In a sep­ar­ate ac­tion Tues­day, Demo­crats boy­cot­ted a Fin­ance Com­mit­tee meet­ing, delay­ing votes on Trump’s nom­in­ees to run the Treas­ury and Health and Hu­man Ser­vices de­part­ments.

At press time, it was not clear wheth­er Demo­crats would seek to pre­vent a Wed­nes­day vote in the Sen­ate En­vir­on­ment and Pub­lic Works Com­mit­tee on Scott Pruitt’s nom­in­a­tion to head the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency.

Demo­crats had reas­ons for their ac­tions: In boy­cot­ting the scuttled Fin­ance Com­mit­tee vote, they poin­ted to new in­form­a­tion about fore­clos­ure prac­tices at the bank that Treas­ury nom­in­ee Steven Mnuchin once headed and HHS pick Tom Price’s pur­chase of bio­med­ic­al stock at a dis­coun­ted price.

But law­makers are also fa­cing pres­sure from the Left to take a tough­er line against the Cab­in­et picks. One act­iv­ist said grass­roots activ­ity paid off in the boy­cott of the Mnuchin and Price votes.

“This is a dir­ect re­sponse to grass­roots pres­sure. There is ab­so­lutely no way Sen­ate Demo­crats would be do­ing this if their base wasn’t de­mand­ing it,” said Kurt Wal­ters, cam­paign dir­ect­or of the group De­mand Pro­gress.

The group said it had or­gan­ized more than 600,000 pe­ti­tion sig­na­tures and worked with oth­er groups to drive 41,000 anti-Mnuchin phone calls to Sen­ate of­fices.

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