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 McConnellGreen New Deal Resolution invites big picture governing ‘Contingency’ spending in 3B budget deal comes under fire Coulter defends Paul Ryan: This is 100 percent Trump's fault 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) ManchinSenate confirms Trump pick William Barr as new attorney general GOP wants to pit Ocasio-Cortez against Democrats in the Senate Senate poised to confirm Trump’s attorney general pick MORE (W.Va.), Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampOvernight Energy: Trump taps ex-oil lobbyist Bernhardt to lead Interior | Bernhardt slams Obama officials for agency's ethics issues | Head of major green group steps down Trump picks ex-oil lobbyist David Bernhardt for Interior secretary On The Money: Shutdown Day 27 | Trump fires back at Pelosi by canceling her foreign travel | Dems blast 'petty' move | Trump also cancels delegation to Davos | House votes to disapprove of Trump lifting Russia sanction MORE (N.D.), Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Kidney Care Partners — Lawmakers scramble as shutdown deadline nears Steel lobby's PR blitz can't paper over damaging effects of tariffs Drama hits Senate Intel panel’s Russia inquiry MORE (Va.), Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineOvernight Defense: Trump declares border emergency | .6B in military construction funds to be used for wall | Trump believes Obama would have started war with North Korea | Pentagon delivers aid for Venezuelan migrants Kaine asks Shanahan if military families would be hurt by moving .6B for border wall Clinton on GOP promoting Trump 'stronger together' quote: Now copy my policies too MORE (Va.) and Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyOvernight Energy: Trump taps ex-oil lobbyist Bernhardt to lead Interior | Bernhardt slams Obama officials for agency's ethics issues | Head of major green group steps down Trump picks ex-oil lobbyist David Bernhardt for Interior secretary EPA's Wheeler faces grilling over rule rollbacks MORE (Ind.); and independent Sen. Angus KingAngus Stanley KingDrama hits Senate Intel panel’s Russia inquiry Warner, Burr split on committee findings on collusion Overnight Defense: Top general wasn't consulted on Syria withdrawal | Senate passes bill breaking with Trump on Syria | What to watch for in State of the Union | US, South Korea reach deal on troop costs MORE (Maine), who caucuses with the Democrats.

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Several other Democrats, including Sens. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillMcCaskill: Lindsey Graham 'has lost his mind' Trey Gowdy joins Fox News as a contributor The Hill’s 12:30 Report: Trump AG pick Barr grilled at hearing | Judge rules against census citizenship question | McConnell blocks second House bill to reopen government MORE (Mo.), Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsTrump got in Dem’s face over abortion at private meeting: report Live coverage: Trump delivers State of the Union Actor Chris Evans meets with Democratic senators before State of the Union MORE (Del.), Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperDems slam EPA plan for fighting drinking water contaminants EPA to announce PFAS chemical regulation plans by end of year Overnight Energy: Zinke joins Trump-tied lobbying firm | Senators highlight threat from invasive species | Top Republican calls for Green New Deal vote in House MORE (Del.) and Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichOvernight Defense: Dems aim to block use of defense funds for wall | Watchdog issues new warning on Syria withdrawal | Trump wants to 'watch Iran' from Iraq Senate Dems introduce bill to block Trump from using military funds to build wall Puerto Rico statehood supporters pin hopes on House action 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 HoevenDem lawmaker 'confident' bipartisan group will strike deal on border funding Congress in painful start to avoid second shutdown Republicans want Trump to keep out of border talks 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) TesterHow the border deal came together GOP braces for Trump's emergency declaration Border talks stall as another shutdown looms 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 CollinsBusiness, conservative groups slam Trump’s national emergency declaration The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Kidney Care Partners — Trump escalates border fight with emergency declaration On The Money: Trump declares emergency at border | Braces for legal fight | Move divides GOP | Trump signs border deal to avoid shutdown | Winners, losers from spending fight | US, China trade talks to resume next week MORE (Maine) and Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Kidney Care Partners — Trump escalates border fight with emergency declaration On The Money: Trump declares emergency at border | Braces for legal fight | Move divides GOP | Trump signs border deal to avoid shutdown | Winners, losers from spending fight | US, China trade talks to resume next week The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the American Academy of HIV Medicine — Trump, Congress prepare for new border wall fight 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 AlexanderCongress must move forward on measure dealing with fentanyl GOP advances rules change to speed up confirmation of Trump nominees Key doctors group faces political risks on guns 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 slam EPA plan for fighting drinking water contaminants Overnight Energy: Zinke joins Trump-tied lobbying firm | Senators highlight threat from invasive species | Top Republican calls for Green New Deal vote in House Senators highlight threat from invasive species MORE (Wyo.), a member of the Senate Republican leadership, to introduce a bill expanding exports of liquefied natural gas. Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetDemocratic donors stuck in shopping phase of primary Overnight Health Care — Sponsored by America's 340B Hospitals — CDC blames e-cigs for rise in youth tobacco use | FDA cracks down on dietary supplements | More drug pricing hearings on tap The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the American Academy of HIV Medicine - Next 24 hours critical for stalled funding talks 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 Mason ReidConstitutional conservatives need to oppose the national emergency Klobuchar: 'I don't remember' conversation with Reid over alleged staff mistreatment Dems wary of killing off filibuster 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.”