It’s only the start of President Trump’s second week in office, and already congressional Democrats have: boycotted his inauguration, participated in global protests the day after his inauguration, held vigils on the steps of the Supreme Court to oppose his travel ban, threatened to filibuster his Supreme Court pick and, on Tuesday, walked out of a committee hearing scheduled to vote on two of his Cabinet nominees.
In other words, Democrats are using just about every tool they have — including some never used before — to try to stop Trump’s White House in its tracks. It’s the Washington obstructionism dial turned up to 11.
And like all gambles, this is — well, a gamble. Republicans still control Washington, so they should be able to at least get Trump’s Cabinet and Supreme Court nominees approved.
Although Democrats could slow things down majorly — already Trump started his presidency with the smallest number of confirmed Cabinet nominees in decades — they risk coming off as obstructionists without anything to show for it. Not to mention they could be putting red-state Senate Democrats in politically difficult situations, especially those 10 up for reelection in states that Trump won.
The Democrats’ political equivalent of nails in the road to Trump’s agenda probably serves two purposes: to energize their base for future elections and to undermine a president many Democrats increasingly fear could be a threat to American democracy.
If you’re the minority party, blocking or delaying the majority party has become a textbook tactic to make the majority party look bad. Democrats will be the first to point the finger at Senate Republicans for filibustering many of Barack Obama's judicial nominees when Democrats controlled Congress. Senate Democrats got so fed up that in 2013, they got rid of the centuries-old ability to filibuster most judicial and political nominees. In the 2014 election, Republicans gained control of the Senate, a fact Democrats leading their own opposition have not missed.
But Democrats’ obstruction is different from run-of-the-mill filibustering. It feels more bold, more in-your-face.
At least one Senate Democrat is threatening to filibuster a Supreme Court nominee for the first time in nearly half a century. Historian Robert David Johnson of Brooklyn College can’t recall the last time lawmakers walked out of committee hearings for votes on Cabinet nominees as they did Tuesday. A former top Senate Democratic staffer wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post urging Senate Democrats to withhold consent on just about everything. Senate Democrats declined an invitation by Trump to meet with his Supreme Court pick at the White House on Tuesday night.
In short, the Democratic fight against Trump has kicked into war mode.
If you talk to Democrats, they’ll tell you this is a manifestation of desperate times, which call for desperate measures. Trump’s first 11 days have veered so far to the right and been so controversial, said Jim Kessler, a former top Senate Democratic aide, that they have little other recourse but to push back.
Other longtime Democratic aides agree.
“When the president and his agenda pose a clear and present danger to a large number of Americans, Democrats need to consider doing everything they can to try to stop him,” said Jim Manley, a former top aide to retired senator Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.)
Politically, Democrats are getting pressure on the left to roadblock Trump. Progressive groups point to women’s marches across the globe after Trump’s inauguration and thousands protesting his travel ban in airports this past weekend’ as proof the base wants its leaders to stick it to Trump.
Charles Chamberlain, director of the progressive group Democracy for America, urged Senate Democrats to hold the line in a statement issued Tuesday: “Until the Muslim ban is repealed, we demand total opposition to all of Trump’s appointees, to Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, and to any legislation coming out of the Trump administration. No exceptions.”
Much of the action is taking place in the Senate, the chamber where the minority party has more power. But indications are that when House Democrats speak up against Trump, they could be speaking to their base as well. Of the 60-plus House Democrats who skipped Trump’s inauguration, most came from very Democratic districts, where electoral danger lurks in the form of primary challengers.
We can see why Democrats are dialing up their opposition; the next question is where this is all headed. And no one really has an answer.
Not that long ago, approving a president's Cabinet and Cabinet-level nominees was relatively routine process. Four years ago, Republicans boycotted a scheduled committee vote for Obama's EPA chief nominee Gina McCarthy, a Cabinet-level appointment. On Tuesday, Senate Democrats are boycotting two of them.
Obstructionism was already threatening to become the new normal in Washington. The big question now, said Johnson, is “what the next step in the escalation will be.”