In the wake of the collapse of his first major legislative push on health care, President Trump and his aides have suddenly begun talking about reaching out to skeptical Democrats to breathe new life into his flagging administration.
But there’s little evidence that any outreach by the administration has occurred — and many Democrats warn it may already be too late.
The abrupt talk of bipartisanship comes after two months in which Trump alienated Democrats with personal attacks and polarizing policies, both of which have made the road to cooperation more politically risky for the minority party. And Trump’s halting overtures to moderate Democrats and unions early in the administration have produced little, if anything, in the way of policies or legislation.
“The president needs to find a new presidency within himself,” Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said Tuesday. “Suggesting that he’s going to negotiate with us, and simultaneously asking for cuts in the budget that will hurt our constituents tremendously, or cutting funding for ‘sanctuary cities,’ or going after the undocumented in a way that’s causing unbelievable stress in our communities, is not going to work.”
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Monday that in the days after the Republicans’ health-care bill failed the president and his aides received calls from Democrats offering to work with the administration. But the White House declined to provide details on who called or what the president might do to bring Democrats to the table.
One of the few Democrats that Trump talked with on health-care issues was Zeke Emanuel, an architect of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, who has met with Trump three times since the election. Their last meeting, which came five days before Republicans pulled their health bill from the House floor, was cited by Spicer as evidence of the White House reaching out to Democrats.
But Emanuel said in an interview that there was no discernible change in the legislation as a result of the meetings. “Prior to the vote on the Republican health-care bill, I had spoken to the president and his staff,” he said. “To the best of my knowledge, none of my ideas had been incorporated into the bill.”
For their part, congressional Democrats offer a conditional response to the president’s overtures: We’re willing to work on bipartisan legislation, but we won’t rubber-stamp Trump’s agenda.
A Senate Democratic leadership aide said Democrats are open to cooperating with Trump on issues where they might have common cause, such as infrastructure and trade. But, the aide noted that Trump would have to be willing to buck Republican orthodoxy to fulfill some of the more populist promises he made on the campaign trail — something that so far he has been unwilling to do.
Speaking on the Senate floor Monday, Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the two sides could work together on health care only if Republicans and the administration stop trying to repeal Obamacare — something that has been a legislative priority for Republicans since the day Obama signed the ACA into law.
The sentiment was echoed by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in an interview Monday with NBC News. “We’re willing to listen,” Pelosi said. “We always want to work with the president, but my message to the president is, ‘First do no harm.’ ”
Aides to both Pelosi and Schumer said the White House has not reached out on health care since the Republican bill failed Friday.
In his first weeks in office, Trump signaled to Democratic members of the Congressional Black Caucus that he might be open to legislation that would allow the government to negotiate prescription drug prices, and he has also held meetings at the White House with union leaders on infrastructure, trade and jobs.
But none of those discussions has materialized into legislation. Instead, Democrats have been irked by Trump’s decision to push a controversial immigration travel ban targeting Muslim-majority countries, his proposal for sharp cuts in the federal budget and his penchant for criticizing Democratic lawmakers in cutting personal terms.
And the decision to proceed with an overhaul of the health-care system through the arcane reconciliation process — which would not require any Democratic votes for the bill to become law — might have already sealed his fate on that issue.
“Right now it’s just a notion, because he realizes he can’t get a majority of Republicans,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said, referring to the health-care debate. “It’s not very serious yet. He’d have to come our way on policy, and there’s no sign he wants to do that yet.”
More broadly, Schatz added: “There’s no indication that he strays from right-wing orthodoxy. All we’ve learned is that in addition to having unacceptable ideas, he has a political shop that can’t get them done.”
Richard Hohlt, a longtime Republican consultant, said he believes that Trump, a consummate dealmaker who is not particularly ideological, is certainly open to negotiating with Democrats.
“I think he’s pragmatic and wants to get things done, and there’s two ways to get things done,” Hohlt said. “One is you reach out to Republicans, one is you reach out to Democrats, or maybe you reach out to both. Every president I’ve worked with since Reagan has always reached out to both. The idea that you only reach out to one party has never been done in the 45 years I’ve been in Washington. Though now things, of course, are more difficult because of polarization.”
On Twitter on Tuesday, the president reiterated his criticism of the conservative Freedom Caucus, a group of about 30 hard-liners that did not deliver much-needed votes for the Republican health-care bill.
But even without most of the Freedom Caucus, there probably are not enough moderate Democrats in the House to give Trump a majority he needs to govern. Only 12 Democrats sit in congressional districts that Trump won.
With the Republicans’ failure to advance their bill on Friday, the Democratic Party has caught a whiff of blood, said Jim Manley, a longtime Democratic strategist who was an aide to former Senate majority leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).
“Democrats don’t have anyone to negotiate with right now,” Manley said. “Trump has proven he can’t handle the Republican Congress. . . . Not only are there not strong leaders able to cut any deals within the House, but at 37 percent [job-approval rating], the president is very weak right now.”
Many Democrats also say there is little reason to trust that the president is serious. The White House’s sudden notes of conciliation stand in stark contrast to Trump’s own comments since his election. Trump has routinely disparaged Democrats — calling Schumer the “head clown” in one tweet — and began blaming them for the demise of the Republican health plan almost as soon as GOP leaders pulled the bill from the floor.
“I think the losers are Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, because now they own Obamacare,” Trump said on Friday afternoon.
Since his inauguration, Trump has met with Schumer twice and Pelosi once — at a White House reception for lawmakers in which he aired his bogus claim that more than 3 million undocumented immigrants caused him to lose the popular vote by casting illegal ballots.
Democrats have long endorsed reforms on prescription drugs, and they say that if infrastructure and tax changes are done in a bipartisan way, they could get on board.
“There is an opening on infrastructure, but they have to stop this extreme ideological approach to things,” Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) said. “And it’s got to be more than tax cuts, because tax cuts don’t build roads in rural America.”
But before then, more pressing issues loom. Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, faces the threat of a filibuster in the Senate, and Trump is likely to face renewed tensions with conservative Republicans in the House on government funding. Both issues underscore the incentives for Trump and his team to successfully build bridges with Democrats.
“Trump’s team needs to better focus on governing and getting broad based support for the Gorsuch nomination and a continuing resolution to keep the government open — including support from Senate Democrats in cycle and moderate House Democrats (both of them),” Scott Reed, chief strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement.