McConnell finds his go-to Dems

Senate Republicans are reaching out to about nine Democrats they see as crucial swing votes in the new Congress.

With his 54-seat majority, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGun proposal picks up GOP support Children’s health-care bill faces new obstacles Dems see Trump as potential ally on gun reform MORE (R-Ky.) is six votes short of overcoming Democratic filibusters, making bipartisan support a necessity for getting most legislation to President Obama’s desk.

Republicans have identified six go-to centrists: Democratic Sens. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinOvernight Energy: EPA aims to work more closely with industry Overnight Finance: Lawmakers grill Equifax chief over hack | Wells Fargo CEO defends bank's progress | Trump jokes Puerto Rico threw budget 'out of whack' | Mortgage tax fight tests industry clout Lawmakers try again on miners’ pension bill MORE (W.Va.), Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampWells Fargo chief defends bank's progress in tense Senate hearing Dems plan to make gun control an issue in Nevada Red-state Dems need more from Trump before tax embrace MORE (N.D.), Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerTrump: Why isn't Senate looking into 'Fake News Networks'? 5 takeaways from Senate Russian meddling presser Trump: 'America is truly a nation in mourning' MORE (Va.), Tim KaineTimothy Michael KaineAuthorizing military force is necessary, but insufficient Week ahead: Crunch time for defense bill’s cyber reforms | Equifax under scrutiny Insurer Anthem to cover bare ObamaCare counties in Virginia MORE (Va.) and Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyKoch-backed group targets red-state Dems on tax reform Dems plan to make gun control an issue in Nevada Agricultural trade demands investment in MAP and FMD MORE (Ind.); and independent Sen. Angus KingAngus Stanley KingSenate confirms No. 2 spot at HHS, days after Price resigns Overnight Defense: Mattis offers support for Iran deal | McCain blocks nominees over Afghanistan strategy | Trump, Tillerson spilt raises new questions about N. Korea policy Mattis: Staying in Iran deal is of US national security interest MORE (Maine), who caucuses with the Democrats.

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Several other Democrats, including Sens. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillKoch-backed group targets red-state Dems on tax reform Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open Las Vegas highlights Islamist terrorism is not America's greatest domestic threat MORE (Mo.), Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsThis week: Congress gets ball rolling on tax reform Lift the Jones Act and similar restrictions for humanitarian crises Overnight Tech: White House unveils tech education initiative | Bannon reportedly sought to spy on Facebook | Uber CEO to appeal London ban | John Oliver rips AT&T-Time Warner merger MORE (Del.), Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperOvernight Energy: Dems take on Trump's chemical safety pick Dems lambaste Trump’s ‘outrageous’ EPA chemical safety pick Infrastructure spending bill sliding down agenda MORE (Del.) and Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichThe Hill's 12:30 Report New Mexico Gov: GOP health care bill 'still needs some work' Dems ask FEC to create new rules in response to Russian Facebook ads MORE (N.M.), are also targets, though they are seen as riskier partners.

“If Republicans want a minimum of six or more Democrats to work with them and they’re sincere about policy and good policy moving forward, they’re definitely going to reach out, and I’ve reached out to them,” Manchin told reporters Tuesday.

Manchin teamed up with Republican Sen. John HoevenJohn Henry HoevenThe Hill's Whip List: Republicans try again on ObamaCare repeal Air Force One is Trump’s new boardroom Overnight Finance: Trump strikes debt, spending deal with Dems | Deal shocks GOP | Fed’s No. 2 to resign | Trump keeps tax squeeze on red state Dems | House aims to pass budget next week MORE (N.D.) on Tuesday to introduce legislation that would approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline. The Democratic co-sponsors of the bill include Donnelly, Heitkamp, Warner, McCaskill and Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterOvernight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open Overnight Finance: White House requests B for disaster relief | Ex-Equifax chief grilled over stock sales | House panel approves B for border wall | Tax plan puts swing-state Republicans in tough spot Senators grill ex-Equifax CEO over stock sales MORE (Mont.).

Hoeven believes he can attract centrist Democrats to the cause of regulatory reform. He says farm-state Democrats have signaled their support for an amendment that would prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from significantly expanding federal authority to regulate small wetlands, creeks and stock ponds.

On Wednesday, Manchin and Donnelly will join centrist Republican Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsGun proposal picks up GOP support Giffords, Scalise highlight party differences on guns Agricultural trade demands investment in MAP and FMD MORE (Maine) and Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiRepublicans jockey for position on immigration GOP senator knocks Trump: 'Not a fan of governing by tweet' How the effort to replace ObamaCare failed MORE (Alaska) in unveiling a proposal to change ObamaCare’s definition of full-time employment from 30 hours per week to 40.

Manchin is also in talks with Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderChildren’s health-care bill faces new obstacles Overnight Health Care: Schumer calls for tying ObamaCare fix to children's health insurance | Puerto Rico's water woes worsen | Dems plead for nursing home residents' right to sue Schumer calls for attaching ObamaCare fix to children's health insurance MORE (R-Tenn.), the expected chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee this Congress, about education reform, and has voiced interest in passing immigration reform in the next two years as well.

Also on Tuesday, Heinrich, Heitkamp and Kaine joined Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoDems lambaste Trump’s ‘outrageous’ EPA chemical safety pick Overnight Regulation: EPA misses smog rule deadline | Search is on for new HHS chief | ACLU sues over abortion pill restrictions | Justices weigh gerrymandering Price resignation sets off frenzy of speculation over replacement MORE (Wyo.), a member of the Senate Republican leadership, to introduce a bill expanding exports of liquefied natural gas. Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetAmeriCorps hurricane heroes deserve a reward — don’t tax it Joe Buck defends 'nonviolent protests' at NFL games Patriotism is no defense for Trump’s attacks on black athletes MORE (Colo.), the recent chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, is an original co-sponsor of the measure.

“I’m very much looking forward to working together with the majority to get things done,” said Kaine, who added that he’s excited about the prospect of working with Republicans on an infrastructure bill.

“There’s a lot of discussion about go-to Democrats but I think there’s going to be a lot of interest in collaborating without violating core principles,” Heitkamp said.

A senior Republican aide said McConnell has reached out to Democratic colleagues, but said the centrists also made an early effort to approach him.

After Republicans captured the Senate in the midterm elections, “some of the first calls to McConnell were from Democrats,” the aide said.

Senate sources say the centrist bloc within the Democratic caucus is key to McConnell’s entire legislative agenda.

“If they can stick together and work for reasonable, rational legislation, [centrist Democrats] will control the balance of power in the Senate,” said former Sen. John Breaux (La.), a Democratic centrist who helped Republicans pass the Bush tax cuts of 2001.

Warner, whom Republicans have identified as a pivotal centrist, said for McConnell to be successful he must be willing to pursue compromises that don’t necessarily win the support of the entire Republican conference.

“There are two big challenges. One is, will the new majority be willing to launch efforts without 100 percent unanimity of the caucus, and the second is, does every bill have to be a showdown between each side?” Warner said.

Warner joined a group of centrists including Heitkamp and Manchin, and independent King last year to propose reforms to 

ObamaCare in hopes of attracting Republican support. They called for expanded consumer choice, greater accessibility to tax credits for small businesses and streamlining the reporting requirements for employers, among other changes.

“I have long said there are some good pieces of the healthcare reform law and some pieces that need to be fixed,” Heitkamp said.

That position poses a quandary for McConnell, who must decide whether to give his centrist GOP colleagues freedom to work with Democrats to tweak the healthcare law or to side with conservatives who argue that fixes only undermine the broader effort to remove it root and branch.

Manchin reiterated Tuesday that he supports improving the law but would oppose a repeal effort.

Heitkamp, meanwhile, says she’s interested in working with Republicans on education and tax reform.

“I think that there isn’t any issue that we couldn’t sit down and come up with a bipartisan collaborative response to the problems in America,” she said. “Whether it’s a budget issue, whether it’s an energy issue, whether it’s a healthcare issue, education...”

She said ObamaCare should be addressed comprehensively instead of in piecemeal fashion.

A senior Republican aide said many Democrats are eager to work with McConnell because they’ve felt stifled over the past four years by Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidChris Murphy’s profile rises with gun tragedies Republicans are headed for a disappointing end to their year in power Obama's HHS secretary could testify in Menendez trial MORE’s (D-Nev.) tight grip on floor procedure and the legislative agenda.

Behind the scenes, Heitkamp and Manchin were among the most vocal critics of Reid’s leadership style.

“Our party has to come back to where the middle is, where the people want us to be,” Manchin said. “I’m fiscally responsible and socially compassionate, and I can’t change who I am.”