The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Progressives cheer Democratic obstruction — and aim at Supreme Court

Republicans were forced to reschedule votes for key cabinet picks after Democrats intensified their opposition to President Trump's nominations. (Video: Alice Li, Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post, Photo: Getty/The Washington Post)

On Tuesday morning, the “war room” at the progressive group American Bridge was working away at opposition research on President Trump’s Cabinet nominees. Steve Mnuchin, Trump’s pick for the Treasury Department, had been damaged by a Columbus Dispatch investigation into how, despite denials, his OneWest Bank frequently used “robo-signers” in foreclosure cases. Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), the nominee to run the Department of Health and Human Services, was dinged by the latest Wall Street Journal story into his stocks.

Both were expected to be moved ahead in Senate committees Tuesday. But as the “war room” watched from afar, Republican committee leaders angrily reported that Democrats had boycotted the markups, delaying the votes. The researchers burst into cheers.

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Tuesday’s delays, which are unlikely to stop final confirmation votes, were welcomed by a left that had become increasingly angry about the Senate Democrats’ strategy. They were especially potent on a day that will end with the president nominating his pick for a Supreme Court seat, one that progressives consider stolen from former president Barack Obama.

“I certainly applaud the Democrats who stood up and performed their advice and consent responsibilities in an admirable fashion,” said Nan Aron, the founder of the Alliance for Justice, which is gearing up a campaign to stop Trump’s court pick. “We’ve seen the Republicans intent on rubber-stamping Trump Cabinet appointees as quickly as possible to avoid public scrutiny. Around our office, people were thrilled to see the Democrats standing up.”

The Senate Democrats’ move scratched the same itch that House conservatives had eight years earlier, when they surprised the majority by denying even a single vote to the 2009 stimulus package. Then-Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) celebrated that vote with a video set to Aerosmith’s “Back in the Saddle,” a message to the party’s disgruntled base that Republicans would fight whatever they could. Then, Republicans had gotten even moderate members to vote no; on Tuesday, even Finance Committee members from states won by Trump joined the boycott.

Still, there was little 2009-style triumphalism from Democrats on Tuesday morning. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), one of the planners behind the committee boycott, said in an interview that he had worked phones until 11 p.m. Monday before the plan cohered. But on Tuesday, swarmed by reporters, he pushed back on the idea that Democrats had a new opposition strategy.

“You guys are all assuming this is delay and tactics and politics,” Brown said. “They lied to the committee. You can write your story however you want, but they lied to the committee about things that affect people’s lives in a direct way. We’re just saying, bring ’em back in, let them explain themselves.”

But to the left, the delays represent the first real effort by Democrats to trip up Trump and Republicans. Activists celebrated as Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.) denounced the “hissy fit” and Senate Finance Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) called the effort “stupid.” It mirrored what they had watched Democrats do for eight years, sputtering in the vain hope that voters would punish Republicans.

“I think it’s a good move, hopefully foreshadowing a far more assertive role for congressional Democrats going forward,” said Norman Solomon, a left-wing writer and activist who leads the progressive Bernie Delegates Network of 2016 primary veterans. “If they act like doormats, they’ll keep getting rolled — and the country will descend further into a pit of dominant intimidation from Trump and his wrecking crew.”

Since Jan. 20, Democrats who had enjoyed strong relationships with their base, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), had been surprised by protests at their votes for Trump nominees. The court fight, coupled with Monday night’s firing of the acting attorney general who refused to defend the administration’s executive orders, was another rationale to oppose everything Trump did.

“Republicans have broken all kind of norms in their pursuit of power and we must check them,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) in a Tuesday afternoon statement. “By blockading an accomplished, centrist jurist in Merrick Garland, Senate Republicans disregarded the norms that sustain American democracy. But instead of invoking the so-called ‘nuclear option’ or making a recess appointment to the court, Democrats dithered while Republican won a major victory.”

But Gallego would have no say in the court fight; Senate Democrats who would, generally, were cautious about how they described it. The 11-month blockade of Garland’s nomination had led to some confusion in how Democrats ranked their responses to a Trump pick. There had been encouragement from the left after a Politico story about how Democrats would filibuster the pick; there had been rage when CNN reported that Democrats were cracking.

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By Tuesday afternoon, what was clear was that Democrats would frame their opposition to a Trump pick as more considered than Republican opposition to Garland. After some criticism for saying she wanted hearings and votes on the nominee, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) clarified that the “votes” she was referring to were cloture votes — i.e., that she supported a 60-vote threshold for any nominee. (“No hearings, no votes” was a slogan for the Garland impasse, made real by Senate Republicans.)

“Why would anyone think that because I support confirmation hearing and [a] 60-vote threshold for Supreme Court nominee, that means I’m folding to Trump?” McCaskill asked on Twitter.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told reporters Tuesday that he would consider any Trump nominee “based on the merits,” which was hardly as volcanic as the language from the left. But when he clarified what that meant, he opened the door to a four-year filibuster.

“One of the unfortunate consequences of the Garland obstructionism has been to show that, in fact, the Supreme Court can function with eight members,” Blumenthal said.

His colleague, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), was less cryptic about his willingness to stop Trump nominees.

“What happened today is exceptional,” Murphy said of the committee-vote boycott. “I think we are rising to what is a truly exceptional moment. We don’t have 50 votes; there’s only so much to do. But I am prepared to shatter precedents to make it clear we are not going to stand for what Trump is doing.”

In a memo sent to Democrats on Tuesday, the Center for American Progress Action Fund urged Democrats to argue that there was a precedent — a precedent to demand a consensus nominee.

“The Senate should refuse to act on any Supreme Court nominee that does not have the broad, bipartisan support of a supermajority of upwards of 66 senators,” wrote CAPAF’s president Neera Tanden. “Justice Anthony Kennedy was unanimously confirmed, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg received 96 votes. If Trump refuses to offer a consensus nominee that could secure a strong supermajority, Democrats would do well to remember that Republicans paid no price for past obstruction.”

Those ideas had not been part of the discussion on Monday night, when Democrats rallied with supporters outside the Supreme Court. At 9 p.m. Tuesday, a coalition of liberal groups will hold their own rally at the court with a more direct theme.

“This Administration has already shown how dangerous it is, taking fundamentally unconstitutional actions within the first 10 days,” the organizers wrote to supporters. “We need to be ready to immediately raise our voices in opposition and call on senators to reject Trump’s nominee.”