Pelosi Looks Beyond Investigating Trump to Set Democrats’ 2020 Agenda

(Bloomberg) -- With the House speaker’s gavel now in hand, Nancy Pelosi has a chance to sketch out a vision of how Democrats would govern if voters award them control of Congress and the White House in 2020.

Addressing the House chamber on Thursday, Pelosi ticked off an agenda that was a ready-made campaign platform: mitigating income inequality, tackling the “existential threat” of climate change, protecting young undocumented immigrants, gun control and cracking down on lobbying in Washington.

Pelosi Looks Beyond Investigating Trump to Set Democrats’ 2020 Agenda

Not mentioned was the biggest single motivator for many of the voters who returned Democrats to control of the House: Taking on President Donald Trump.

“These two years — we’ve got to get some stuff done, but this is an audition,” Connecticut Democrat Jim Himes said Thursday. “So we need to show the American people that we can hold this president’s feet to the fire, but we also need to show that we can accomplish things to address the concerns that people have around the kitchen table.”

Pelosi will have to steer her agenda through a diverse and restive group of Democratic lawmakers that includes including younger members and progressives such as New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who are unwilling to defer to tradition and seniority. It also includes Democrats in more conservative districts who refused to back Pelosi for speaker.

Cutting Deals

The speaker will also have to try to cut deals with the other side. Achieving results will require cooperation from Republicans and from the often mercurial Trump, even as Democrat-run House committees begin what is sure to be a series of investigations into his business dealings and administration.

“It will be a balancing act because we have a president that is so erratic and also so self-centered,” said Representative Judy Chu of California. “How do you deal with that? How do you deal with the Senate, which is still controlled by Republicans?"

The tricky calculation will be knowing when to team up with Trump and when to confront him.

"The biggest challenge is doing two things at once. One is actually getting things done to help working families. That will definitely mean working with some Republicans, working with the president, and sharing credit with him potentially on certain major accomplishments," said Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois. "The other challenge is holding the administration accountable and performing our constitutional duty of oversight," while doing it carefully, he said.

"We don’t want to engage in Benghazi-style investigations," he said.

Confronting Trump

Pelosi has succeeded in keeping something of a lid on discussion of impeaching Trump as polls show voters are wary of Democrats going down that path, even as a faction of her party is eager to press the case.

"It becomes harder and harder to make the case that this president hasn’t committed impeachable offenses," said Representative Pramila Jayapal, a Washington Democrat and rising star on the left. She added that Democrats need to persuade the American public of that before pursuing it. "Impeachment requires a two-thirds majority" in the Senate to remove a president, she said. "We have to have Republicans with us."

Incoming House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings of Maryland said Democrats will be "cautious" about the issue of impeachment but "the more information comes out, the more certainly our constituents want us to do something."

Legislating Over Investigating

Many newly elected Democrats have conveyed to party leaders that they prefer to focus more on legislation than investigations of Trump over the next two years. The new class includes 31 Democrats in districts the president won in 2016, said Representative Cheri Bustos, the newly elected chair of the party’s House campaign arm.

“Our plan with this freshman class is that we are going to own these districts, we are not going to rent them for the next two years,” the Illinois Democrat said in an interview.

Democrats are united around goals like bolstering health care markets, lowering drug prices, making college more affordable and improving U.S. infrastructure. But the "Better Deal" blueprint offered by Pelosi before the 2018 election is deliberately light on specifics because achieving party consensus on policy will be difficult. An early division emerged this week when some progressive members opposed the House rules package over a fiscally restrictive provision sought by centrist Democrats.

Pressure from Left

The Congressional Progressive Caucus will pressure Pelosi to pursue a "Medicare for all" health care system, a popular idea on the left that aspiring Democratic presidential candidates are racing to embrace, and proposals to let young people graduate from college free of debt, Jayapal, who will co-chair the group, said in an interview.

Both projects would run into a buzz saw in the Republican Senate and Trump White House.

A cohort of progressives, led by Ocasio-Cortez, is spoiling for a "Green New Deal" program that would make massive investments in renewable energy and phase out fossil fuels. The democratic-socialist showed her willingness to confront her party by voting against the rules package. She also participated in a climate-change protest in Pelosi’s office and confronted incoming House Energy & Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone of New Jersey about the need for a select committee to tackle global carbon emissions.

Enlisting Help

Jayapal said progressives will "flex our muscle" to secure their priorities, including by sticking together and demanding them in must-pass bills to fund the government. She said they’ll enlist outside liberal groups to pressure Democrats wary of their agenda.

Centrist Democratic groups like the Blue Dog Coalition, Problem Solvers Caucus and New Democrat Coalition are expanding their ranks after the victories of many Democrats in competitive districts that had been held by Republicans. Many of them prefer to focus on modest proposals that can pass the GOP-led Senate and win Trump’s signature.

"As we work out specifics on these issues there will be debate and disagreement, but that’s part of the legislative process," said Representative Derek Kilmer of Washington, who will chair the centrist New Democrat group. "There’s an opportunity at the end of these two years to stand in front of the American people and say ‘here’s what we’re doing to try to make your lives better,’" he said. "Being able to, two years from now, demonstrate to the American people how we made their lives better, I think, should be the test of us."

Seeking Victories

Incoming Ways & Means Chair Richard Neal of Massachusetts said there’ll be room to talk about issues like the 2017 tax overhaul that Democrats campaigned against, but he said the "emphasis that we need to embrace, clearly, is governance, and I think getting off with some victories, hopefully bipartisan ones that are good for the country."

Meanwhile, more than a half-dozen Democratic senators and some House members are weighing a run for president in 2020, which could influence the actions party leaders take.

All told, it’s a recipe for tension, as the left flank sees the next two years as an opportunity to paint a bold vision in anticipation of ascending to power in 2021.

"It makes no sense to compromise with the party of Donald Trump and offer piecemeal solutions that simply manage decline rather than create prosperity for all, not just those on top," said Waleed Shahid, an activist with Justice Democrats, a group with close ties to Ocasio-Cortez. "As very little is going to get past the GOP-held Senate, the Democrats can help rally the public around the Green New Deal, Medicare For All, free college, and ending mass incarceration and deportation."

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