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 McConnellMitch McConnellLawmakers push one-week stopgap funding bill Overnight Finance: Inside Trump's tax plan | White House mulls order pulling out of NAFTA | New fight over Dodd-Frank begins Dem rep: Trump's tax plan as believable as 'magic, unicorns or Batman' 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 ManchinJoe ManchinSenators push 'cost-effective' reg reform Congress nears deal on help for miners Senate votes to confirm Rosenstein as deputy attorney general MORE (W.Va.), Heidi HeitkampHeidi HeitkampOvernight Regulation: Senators call for 'cost-effective' regs | FCC chief unveils plans to roll back net neutrality Senators push 'cost-effective' reg reform Battle begins over Wall Street rules MORE (N.D.), Mark WarnerMark WarnerOvernight Cybersecurity: DNC hackers also targeted French presidential candidate | Ex-acting AG Yates to testify at Senate Russia hearing Schumer: Senate Russia probe moving too slowly Senate Intel Dem has ‘serious concerns’ on Russia probe MORE (Va.), Tim KaineTim KaineOvernight Defense: US moving missile defense system to South Korea | Dems want justification for Syria strike | Army pick pushes back against critics of LGBT record Kaine, Schiff press Trump on legal justification for Syria strike Democrats thought they could produce a political earthquake in Kansas MORE (Va.) and Joe DonnellyJoe DonnellyWhat prospective college students need to know before they go — or owe Battle begins over Wall Street rules GOP rep to potential Senate rival: Don't run MORE (Ind.); and independent Sen. Angus KingAngus KingSenator: No signs of GOP 'slow-walking' Russia investigation Republican Sen. Collins considering run for Maine governor in 2018 Conway: Dems should listen to their constituents on tax reform MORE (Maine), who caucuses with the Democrats.

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Several other Democrats, including Sens. Claire McCaskillClaire McCaskillFive takeaways from the Georgia special election Picking 2018 candidates pits McConnell vs. GOP groups Potential McCaskill challenger has .7M: report MORE (Mo.), Chris CoonsChris CoonsA Vandenberg movement in Congress Senate approves Trump's Agriculture chief How Gorsuch's confirmation shapes the next Supreme Court battle MORE (Del.), Tom CarperTom CarperDems probe claims of religious bias in DHS 'trusted traveler' program Senate Dems want Trump to release ethics waivers, visitor logs Medicare’s coverage decisions need more input from physicians MORE (Del.) and Martin HeinrichMartin HeinrichThe outdoor recreation economy is a force that is here to stay Senate Dems want Trump to release ethics waivers, visitor logs Senate Dems offer bill to restore internet privacy rules 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 HoevenCongress nears deal on help for miners Overnight Energy: Lawmakers work toward deal on miners’ benefits Congress nears deal on help for miners 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 TesterJon TesterBattle begins over Wall Street rules Dems hunt for a win in Montana special election Tester raises M for reelection 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 CollinsOvernight Energy: Lawmakers work toward deal on miners’ benefits Schumer: Senate Russia probe moving too slowly Collins: I'm not working with Freedom Caucus chairman on healthcare MORE (Maine) and Lisa MurkowskiLisa MurkowskiTrump’s Army pick faces tough confirmation fight Republican Sen. Collins considering run for Maine governor in 2018 Alaska senators push bill to allow Arctic drilling 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 AlexanderLamar AlexanderGroups warn of rural health 'crisis' under ObamaCare repeal Trump’s Army pick faces tough confirmation fight Trump faces risky ObamaCare choice 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 BarrassoPoll: Sanders most popular senator in the US The animal advocate Trump climate move risks unraveling Paris commitments MORE (Wyo.), a member of the Senate Republican leadership, to introduce a bill expanding exports of liquefied natural gas. Sen. Michael BennetMichael BennetDems knock Trump on Earth Day Dem pushed plan for both sides to admit to abusing Senate rules: report Senators aim to extend federal conservation fund 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 ReidDraft House bill ignites new Yucca Mountain fight Week ahead: House to revive Yucca Mountain fight Warren builds her brand with 2020 down the road 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.”