President-elect Donald Trump and his Republican allies on Capitol Hill may have an extra cushion if GOP support wavers for any of Trump’s Cabinet nominees: moderate Democrats up for reelection in 2018.
On Thursday Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), possibly the most conservative member of his caucus, happily introduced former Texas governor Rick Perry at his confirmation hearing to be the secretary of energy. On Wednesday, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) got a meeting with the secretary of state nominee, Rex Tillerson.
These Democrats and others have emerged as a key bloc of potential support for much of Trump’s Cabinet.
“We’re looking at everything, and I’m giving everybody a fair shake,” Manchin, who is also supporting Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) for attorney general, told reporters Wednesday.
Republicans no longer need any Democratic support to win confirmation for Cabinet selections. When they were in the majority in 2013, Democrats changed the rules on a party-line basis and eliminated the 60-vote hurdle to clear a filibuster on all nominations except for the Supreme Court. With 52 seats of their own, Republicans can afford to lose two votes and still win a confirmation fight, as Vice President-elect Mike Pence, in his constitutional role of presiding over the Senate, could deliver the tiebreaking vote.
But the reality is that for the vast majority of Trump nominees, there will be some Democratic support buffeting the near-unanimity that is expected among Republicans for the entire slate of nominees.
Those votes will likely come from Democrats whose states delivered landslide victories to Trump. In Manchin’s West Virginia, Trump won by 42 points. Heitkamp’s North Dakota voted for Trump by 36 points. And Sen. Joe Donnelly has Trump’s 19-point victory in his home state of Indiana to consider.
All three of these senators — and seven other Democrats from states where Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton on Nov. 8 — face reelection in 2018.
That landscape could inform a lot more than this season’s confirmation hearings, all of which may be merely a warm-up for the big fight that could begin not long after Friday’s inauguration: replacing the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court.
Under current rules, Trump will need at least eight Democrats, since those high court picks face a 60-vote hurdle.
The Trump team is already working it.
Last week, Pence paid visits to Manchin, Heitkamp and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), his counterpart in the 2016 campaign who also faces reelection in 2018. Manchin said afterward that they discussed several issues, including the Supreme Court.
On Cabinet picks, Democratic aides stressed that Trump and Senate Republican leaders have not put pressure on these Democrats to come out early in support of the nominees. But Republicans would like to tout some measure of bipartisan support for as many nominees as possible, and they have been diligent in setting up meetings with potential Democratic supporters.
Heitkamp, who is four years into her first term, met with Tillerson on the same day Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, met with the ExxonMobil CEO.
Earlier this month, Heitkamp declined to state her position on Tillerson but reiterated that she has long been predisposed to giving a president of either party enough latitude to assemble the Cabinet of his or her choice. After meeting Tillerson, she issued a statement praising his “holistic” approach to diplomacy.
“I’m glad he shares my support for soft power investments that continue to strengthen American ties with strategic partners and treaty allies,” Heitkamp said.
She did express concern about Tillerson’s business ties to Russia, which included receiving an honor from President Vladimir Putin that has raised concerns among some Republican national security hawks.
Several nominees have drawn Republican criticism. Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) has been the leading GOP critic of Tillerson on the Foreign Relations Committee and has still not said how he will vote on the nomination, which is slated for a committee vote Monday. Other Republicans, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), also have expressed concern.
So far, at least, Democratic leaders remain hopeful that Heitkamp and other moderates up for reelection next year would let a nominee fail if several Republicans chose to defect — for instance, if Rubio and McCain lead a rebellion that leaves Tillerson a few votes short of winning confirmation among Republicans.
Yet, although they won’t publicly acknowledge it, party leaders don’t mind their Democrats from Trump states showing some deference to his Cabinet selections — even those who infuriate liberal activists.
Manchin, for example, is friends with Sessions, so almost immediately after Sessions’s nomination was announced in November, the West Virginian announced his support. Perry is a friend from Manchin’s tenure as West Virginia’s governor.
“He sat next to him. I have no problem with that,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters Thursday of Manchin’s endorsement of Perry.
Despite some positive overtures, most rank-and-file Democrats have kept their powder dry. “I think it’s rather exceptional at this point, I think most Democratic members have either withheld their position or only a few have announced an interest in voting for the nominee,” Durbin said.
Manchin will not give a free pass to all GOP nominees. He has flagged two who are troubling to him: Betsy DeVos, the billionaire conservative philanthropist nominated for education secretary, and Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), the nominee for secretary of health and human services.
Price’s selection drew instant words of caution from Donnelly and Manchin, who disapproved of his support for turning Medicare into a private, premium-support plan. Then, during his hearing, Price stumbled over a question about whether he would support federal funding to battle the opioid epidemic ravaging West Virginia.
In a brief interview, Manchin said his red flags for nominees revolved around a critical thing: “anything that basically runs contradictory to the values of my state and the people I represent.”