The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats who never imagined shutdown fight relish victory over Trump

The House joined the Senate in passing legislation to end the partial government shutdown by temporarily funding federal agencies on Jan. 25. (Video: Reuters)

In their first month in charge, House Democrats have flipped the adage from a Democratic favorite, the late Mario Cuomo.

They campaigned in prose and are governing in poetry.

Throughout 2018, Democrats tried to be boring. Their candidates followed instructions from Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), then the minority leader, to avoid confrontations with President Trump. She urged them to focus on kitchen-table issues, such as the high cost of prescription drugs, and to never take the bait on Trump’s favorite issue, the U.S.-Mexico border wall.

The midterm elections validated that approach with a 40-seat gain and a return to the majority.

But in the past month, since Pelosi formally reclaimed the speaker’s gavel, House Democrats have dived deep into hand-to-hand combat with Trump. They fought on his turf, immigration, and refused to reopen portions of the government until he gave up on his demand for $5.7 billion in border wall funds.

Pelosi tussled with Trump, undermined his manhood and postponed his State of the Union address. Meanwhile, the Democratic pocketbook agenda took a back seat.

Yet the high-risk strategy paid off Friday when Trump bowed to political reality, signing legislation to reopen federal agencies with no guarantee of wall funding.

And Democrats admit this was never the plan, but they scored a bigger early victory than they ever imagined possible.

“Who would plan for a shutdown? I don’t know that anybody can plan much with what I would call a reckless and feckless president,” House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) said Thursday, a day before Trump folded.

Even Pelosi acknowledged Democrats lost some focus on plans to lower health-care costs and produce an infrastructure plan.

“We are working on these initiatives. We hope that we can open the government so that we can fully concentrate in this way,” she told reporters at her weekly Thursday briefing.

‘She wields the knife’: Pelosi moves to belittle and undercut Trump in shutdown fight

Twelve years ago, when she first became speaker, Pelosi shepherded a rapid-fire succession of legislation through the House. Six bills, making up the “Six for ’06” platform that helped Democrats win the majority in the 2006 midterms, passed in less than 100 hours of floor time.

Almost a month into this new majority, Democrats have not yet finished passing each piece of their first major bill, H.R. 1, an ethics and campaign finance proposal.

Aside from legislation to reopen the government, the House accomplishment list is pretty meager so far: condemning white supremacy after controversial comments from Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), trying to block withdrawal from NATO and forbid lifting sanctions on a Russian oligarch, and directing House counsel to defend the Affordable Care Act in federal lawsuits.

Liberal activists expecting the House Judiciary Committee to come roaring out of the gate with Trump hearings will have to wait a bit. The new chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), convened the panel’s organizational meeting Thursday. Their first hearing will not come until Feb. 8, with acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker.

Some committees did not receive their full slot of new members until late this past week.

The shutdown did not cause all the delays. After the November elections, Pelosi first had to tamp down a rebellion from a couple dozen Democrats calling for new leadership, leaving minor suspense around the Jan. 3 speaker vote on the House floor.

Only after she won did Democrats convene their steering panel to begin doling out assignments, starting with the most important committees and methodically working downward.

This left committees not formally empaneled, unable to begin work on those 2018 agenda items. “We’ll get there in due course but that’s not the priority right now,” Clyburn said. “Getting this government reopened is the priority.”

Some Democratic leaders worried how their class of more than 60 freshmen would handle the shutdown. Their campaigns had focused on getting results for voters, and here was a Trump-Pelosi standoff leaving some critical agencies dysfunctional as little to no negotiations occurred.

But Trump and his lieutenants struggled with their messaging. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told an interviewer Thursday that he could not understand why furloughed workers had to go to food banks.

“Frankly, the shutdown is bringing out the issues that we campaigned on, which is Democrats, now in the majority, being the party of the people, the party of the worker,” Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Mich.), who won a GOP seat outside Detroit, said in an interview Thursday off the House floor. “We’re connected to middle-class America.”

‘This is your fault’: GOP senators clash over shutdown inside private luncheon

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), representing hundreds of thousands of Northern Virginia residents impacted by the shutdown, said that polling showing Trump was being blamed by wide margins provided the political backbone to know they could win.

Even if it meant getting into a mud fight with the king of mud fights.

In recent weeks, Pelosi called Trump’s demand for the wall “a manhood thing” and accused the real estate heir of thinking unpaid federal workers could “ask their father for more money.”

This was everything Democrats tried to avoid last year. Over and over, Pelosi steered her charges away from engaging Trump, particularly on anything related to the highly charged immigration issue. Two weeks before the election, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) condemned Trump for trying to inflame voters with unfounded accusations that an asylum-seeking caravan in Mexico was filled with criminals.

“The president is desperate to change the subject from health care to immigration,” Pelosi and Schumer wrote.

Pelosi mostly stuck to that script right through her valedictory address four weeks ago on the first day of the new Congress. She never mentioned Trump’s name. Instead, she promised “a Congress that delivers results for the people”and called on lawmakers to be “pioneers of the future.”

Later that day, she formally invited Trump to deliver the annual presidential address in the House.

Within days, the script got torn up, Pelosi and Trump started slugging it out, and agenda planning went to meeting rooms in the Capitol basement or in office buildings across the street.

Now, with a clear victory on Trump’s signature issue, Democrats enter the next round of fights believing they are on higher ground.

Stevens, the Michigan freshman, struggled to find her way around the Capitol on Thursday to find a meeting about the agenda. On Wednesday, she huddled with Democrats about education and infrastructure proposals.

She plans to use the shutdown as a vehicle to explain to her constituents how Democrats care about their needs.

“I’m happy to have that conversation,” Stevens said.

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