By the end of the month, Republicans will control both Congress and the White House — but Democrats think they can control the narrative.
President Obama took a rare trip to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to counsel congressional Democrats to just let Republicans flail in the wind, then point fingers when they fail.
Don't “rescue” Republicans when it comes to repealing and replacing Obamacare, the president urged them. "Stay strong," he said.
“If they want to break this, they own it,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told MSNBC shortly after Obama's meeting with Democrats.
But the “you-break-it-you-buy-it” strategy illuminates another problem for Democrats: Their best option doesn't so much involve stopping Republicans as it does just not giving them a hand. Congressional Democrats don't have a whole lot of tangible roadblocks to throw up to stop the GOP and President-elect Donald Trump from dismantling much of Obama's legacy.
With the help of Cornell law professor and congressional analyst Josh Chafetz, here's a guide to the few tools Democrats do have at their disposal to block Trump:
1. Filibuster, filibuster, filibuster
The House of Representatives is not much help for Democrats in their efforts to blockade Trump; it takes a majority to pass legislation, and Republicans have the majority (241-194). Plus the nominations of Trump's Cabinet-level advisers and any Supreme Court nominees happen in the Senate anyway.
There, the most useful tool for blocking the majority party's agenda is to filibuster, or essentially threaten to seize the Senate floor until 60 senators decide to override you. Unfortunately for Republicans, they only have 52 members.
Fortunately for Republicans, Democrats shot themselves in their leather-soled shoes when they got rid of the filibuster for most political and judicial nominations back in 2013. That means pretty much the only times they can filibuster a Trump proposal is when it's a piece of legislation — like, say, a bill that repeals Obamacare or undoes regulations on Wall Street — and Trump's Supreme Court pick, which they seem very much intent on doing despite the political risks, but that's another story.
2. Sit back and watch
Luckily for Republicans, there are major parts of Obamacare that they can repeal while avoiding a Democratic filibuster. If the repeal language has to do with taxes, spending or the overall federal budget, Republicans can wrap it into their budget bill, which only needs a simple majority to pass. It's a process called reconciliation, and Senate Republicans started it Wednesday.
The Senate has voted 51-48 to proceed to debate on the budget resolution, step one of many on Obamacare repeal
— Jamie Dupree (@jamiedupree) January 4, 2017
Except, once Republicans repeal the law, they'll need to replace it with something. And that's where Democrats in Congress seem to think they can have the most leverage — by refusing to help Republicans pass replacements that fundamentally change Obamacare.
That means if (or when) Americans lose their health insurance because of Republicans' repeal efforts, Democrats can honestly just say “Republicans did it!” It's a flipped script of what happened in 2010 when Democrats shoved through Obama's health-care reform law without any Republican votes.
3. Drive a wedge between Hill Republicans and Trump
So hopefully I've established by now that Democrats don't have a lot of legislative tools to block Republicans from passing Trump's agenda. They can filibuster some stuff, but that's it. Which means one of their best bets is to somehow get Republicans to block their own president's agenda.
There are already cracks showing between Trump and Republicans in Congress.
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have all expressed concern about Trump's nominee for secretary of state, ExxonMobil chief executive Rex Tillerson, because of his ties to Russia. ("There's also a realistic scenario that pigs fly," McCain told the Houston Chronicle on Wednesday about his support for Tillerson.)
Being a "friend of Vladimir" is not an attribute I am hoping for from a #SecretaryOfState - MR
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) December 11, 2016
And Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) has been sharply critical of Trump's questioning of the U.S. intelligence community.
Assange has a record of undermining the United States. He's no friend to America or democracy. https://t.co/J8uyFYPSaw
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) January 4, 2017
Sensing an opening, at least two progressive groups have launched ads targeting several GOP senators up in 2018 in potential swing states — specifically Sens. Dean Heller in Nevada and Jeff Flake in Arizona — hoping to put public pressure on them to block some of Trump's nominees. (It takes just three Republicans to join a united Democratic caucus to block Trump's nominees.)
4. Take their case to you, The People
Ultimately, how successful Democrats are at splitting Republicans up depends on how successful they are at convincing the public that Trump's ideas are worth resisting, Chafetz said.
The world learned Tuesday that Congress is not immune to public pressure; after lots of it, Republicans backed off a dark-of-night proposal to gut an independent House ethics watchdog.
Some would argue that Trump played a role in getting his party to back down from this politically dangerous idea. But Democrats scrambled to their megaphones — i.e. Twitter accounts — as soon as the proposal came out to cry foul, helping shape the narrative that this was a Really Bad Idea.
— Nancy Pelosi (@NancyPelosi) January 3, 2017
Expect Democrats to try to replicate what happened Tuesday nearly every day Republicans control Washington. Investigations, calling sensational witnesses to hearings, trying to rally industry to their side, good old-fashioned tweeting — “Democrats will use what levers they have,” Chafetz said, “to try and make Trump's nominees and policy agenda as unpalatable as possible.” They've even set up a kind of war room for his purpose (in addition to just generally trying to make Trump look bad.)
All of that is to say, dear reader, how successful Democrats are at stopping Trump could depend on how you feel about him. Because they don't have a lot of options otherwise.