Trump, Dems have reasons to work together, but tensions are boiling over

Tensions between President TrumpDonald John TrumpChelsea Clinton announces birth of third child Ukrainian officials and Giuliani are sharing back-channel campaign information: report Trump attacks 'the Squad' as 'racist group of troublemakers' MORE and Capitol Hill Democrats have reached a boiling point just a month into the new Congress, highlighting the gulf between the parties under divided government and dimming prospects for bipartisan action this year.

Trump has become boxed in on the fight with Democrats over his demand for border wall funding, and the president has grown furious over their push forward with investigations into nearly every corner of his administration and personal finances, blasting it as “presidential harassment” that “really does hurt our country.”


The dynamic was on full display during Tuesday’s State of the Union, when Trump lashed out at Democrats on issues as diverse as abortion, immigration and socialism, and Democrats pushed back by refusing to applaud at key moments of the address.

The residue of the speech is carrying into the current budget negotiations, with some Democrats voicing a fresh pessimism that Trump will endorse a deal to avert another government shutdown, even if congressional Republicans sign on.

“I'm still of the feeling that any reliance on the president signing something [is] still pretty slim. I think that he's boxed himself into a corner, and I haven't seen him budge,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.). “Certainly the speech he gave here at State of the Union gave no indication that there was going to be an attempt at middle ground.”

A Democratic aide characterized the year ahead as “a lot of just spinning our wheels on the big-ticket items.”

Still, both sides have incentive to work together on certain issues regardless of how the spending fight ends.

Trump is in search of more accomplishments he can tout to voters in 2020 and, with their hands on the levers of power for the first time in two years, Democrats are also looking for policy gains and to avoid being labeled “obstructionist” by Trump and Republicans.

That could open the door to action on Trump's revision of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), drug pricing and infrastructure, among other topics — if the two sides can actually stop fighting.

“My hope is that in the areas where he said that we might have common ground, we'll give him the legislation … The wild card always is the president, and which side of the bed he wakes up on in the morning,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Rules Committee.

“If there's something we agree on, we ought to move forward, and we're going to try to do that,” McGovern added. “As to whether or not he's receptive, who the hell knows.”

A senior White House official, who requested anonymity to describe internal thinking, said “the mood is good” about working with Democrats on certain issues despite the fierce partisan battles raging over immigration and oversight investigations.

“I feel like a lot of them want to end this year having some accomplishments on their agenda,” the official said, citing conversations with lawmakers, including some Democrats.

A small, bipartisan group of House members are spending the weekend at Camp David with acting White House chief of staff Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyPelosi, Mnuchin reach 'near-final agreement' on budget, debt ceiling This week: Mueller dominates chaotic week on Capitol Hill Trump telling aides to look at potential spending cuts if he wins reelection: report MORE, a former firebrand Republican congressman from South Carolina, to discuss possible areas of agreement.

“He wants to build relationships with former colleagues and friends in Congress but also forge new relationships with those who have just come into office,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said of Mulvaney on Fox News. “He thinks that’s important for us to move forward and, again, the agenda for the president is bold and robust and he wants to talk to them about that.”

Mulvaney is hosting eight Republicans and Democrats, including senior members of the Budget Committee; lawmakers sitting on a bipartisan panel working on a border security package; and a liberal who is a vocal proponent of lowering prescription drug prices — all of whom could prove crucial for advancing items on Trump’s agenda.

The group kicked off the weekend with a dinner on Friday night and spent Saturday having discussions and participating in activities at the presidential retreat. Trump did not attend.

The Trump administration is readying a full-court press to push Trump’s new NAFTA agreement through Congress, which they see as arguably the top priority for 2019.

White House aides have already begun conversations with Senate and House members on the agreement to feel out where they stand and have mobilized senior officials to start pressuring holdouts.

“A lot of work on it is happening in the background so we are ready,” the official said.

The West Wing was encouraged that Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi, Mnuchin reach 'near-final agreement' on budget, debt ceiling Wendy Davis launches bid for Congress in Texas Steyer calls on Pelosi to cancel 'six-week vacation' for Congress MORE (D-Calif.) said this week she was “optimistic” about passage of the agreement, even though she reiterated her concerns about enforcement provisions.


But the timing of action remains in flux. The U.S. International Trade Commission was due to release its analysis on the deal on March 15, but that was pushed back to mid-April due to the government shutdown. Congress is also unlikely to take up the deal until Mexico passes labor reforms.

Democrats have long viewed Trump as a transactional president, not an ideologue, and on two areas in particular — infrastructure and lowering prescription drug costs — they see him as a potential partner. Trump campaigned on both issues in 2016 — and promoted them again in his State of the Union speech — lending some key lawmakers new hope the sides can come together on legislation this year.

Rep. Peter DeFazioPeter Anthony DeFazioThe House Democrats who voted to kill impeachment effort The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Pass USMCA Coalition - Deadline approaches for 2020 Dems Dems eye big infrastructure package, with or without Trump MORE (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, referenced news reports indicating that Trump had rejected language, contained in an initial draft of the speech, calling specifically for a partisan infrastructure bill opposed by Democrats.

“So that's good news,” DeFazio said, “and I'm engaged in ongoing discussions with various members of the administration about how we might move forward.”

But the White House official said a major infrastructure package would be “one of the more difficult ones to get done” this year because of the intense debate over how road and bridge projects would be paid for. It did not escape notice on Capitol Hill and K Street that only 70 words were dedicated to infrastructure in Trump’s State of the Union.

“For the president just to leave that out of his speech — not address that at all except in the most glancing way — really stood out to me as an omission,” said Rep. Katherine ClarkKatherine Marlea ClarkWendy Davis launches bid for Congress in Texas Two Democrats vow to press forward on Trump impeachment Democratic staffer says Wendy Davis will run for Congress MORE (Mass.), vice chairwoman of the House Democratic Caucus.

Rep. Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsTrump tweets, rally chant dominate Sunday shows as president continues attacks Sunday shows - Fallout over Trump tweets Cummings: 'No doubt about it' Trump is a racist MORE (D-Md.), who for years has advocated legislation to lower prescription costs, said there’s plenty of room to get a deal. But to do so, he said, the president will have to follow through on his campaign promise to back proposals like empowering Medicare to negotiate drug prices.

“He needs to step out and do something that would really have impact, instead of nibbling around the edges,” said Cummings. “I applaud him — him and [Health and Human Services Secretary Alex] Azar — for saying the right things. But that's not going to help [those struggling to afford drugs].

“It's nice to talk, but it's not getting us there. We're just going in circles.”

A number of Democrats say they’ve adopted a novel approach in pursuing their goals in the face of an unpredictable president: they’re ignoring him.

“Folks in this building should stop paying so much attention to what he says,” said Rep. Dan KildeeDaniel (Dan) Timothy KildeeHere are the 95 Democrats who voted to support impeachment Trump threatens veto on defense bill that targets 'forever chemicals' Democrats already jockeying for House leadership posts MORE (D-Mich.). “It's a terrible observation to have to make, but what the president says is so confused — and sometimes contradictory — that I think it's a losing proposition to try to interpret what he says. The only thing we can go by is what he does.”

Cummings delivered a similar message.

“The best thing that members of the House can do is have blinders on,” he said. “No matter what the president says, we need to focus, not on who we're fighting against, but what we're fighting for.”