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 McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan Frustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' New Yorker cover titled 'The Shining' shows Graham, McConnell, Barr polishing Trump's shoes 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) ManchinThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Senate panel approves Interior nominee over objections from Democrats Labor head warns of 'frightening uptick' in black lung disease among miners MORE (W.Va.), Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampOn The Money: Stocks sink on Trump tariff threat | GOP caught off guard by new trade turmoil | Federal deficit grew 38 percent this fiscal year | Banks avoid taking position in Trump, Dem subpoena fight Fight over Trump's new NAFTA hits key stretch Former senators launching effort to help Dems win rural votes MORE (N.D.), Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerHillicon Valley: Assange hit with 17 more charges | Facebook removes record 2.2B fake profiles | Senate passes anti-robocall bill | Senators offer bill to help companies remove Huawei equipment Senators offer bipartisan bill to help US firms remove Huawei equipment from networks DOJ plans to show Senate Intel less-redacted Mueller report, filing shows MORE (Va.), Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineOvernight Defense: Details on Senate's 0B defense bill | Bill rejects Trump plan to skirt budget caps | Backfills money for border wall | Defense chief says more troops could head to Mideast Dem senator plans amendment to restrict military action against Iran Overnight Defense: Iran worries dominate foreign policy talk | Pentagon reportedly to send WH plans for 10K troops in Mideast | Democrats warn Trump may push through Saudi arms sale | Lawmakers blast new Pentagon policy on sharing info MORE (Va.) and Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyK Street giants scoop up coveted ex-lawmakers Obama honors 'American statesman' Richard Lugar Former GOP senator Richard Lugar dies at 87 MORE (Ind.); and independent Sen. Angus KingAngus Stanley KingSenate panel approves Interior nominee over objections from Democrats Trump, Europe increasingly at odds on Iran The Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems raise stakes with talk of 'constitutional crisis' MORE (Maine), who caucuses with the Democrats.

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Several other Democrats, including Sens. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillLobbying world Big Dem names show little interest in Senate Gillibrand, Grassley reintroduce campus sexual assault bill MORE (Mo.), Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsOil companies join blitz for carbon tax Mnuchin says carbon capture tax credit guidance will be out soon Mnuchin signals administration won't comply with subpoena for Trump tax returns MORE (Del.), Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperOvernight Energy: Democrats ask if EPA chief misled on vehicle emissions | Dem senators want NBC debate focused on climate change | 2020 hopeful John Delaney unveils T climate plan Democrats suggest EPA chief misled on vehicle emissions rollback Overnight Energy: EPA watchdog finds Pruitt spent 4K on 'excessive' travel | Agency defends Pruitt expenses | Lawmakers push EPA to recover money | Inslee proposes spending T for green jobs MORE (Del.) and Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichOvernight Energy: Democrats ask if EPA chief misled on vehicle emissions | Dem senators want NBC debate focused on climate change | 2020 hopeful John Delaney unveils T climate plan Democratic senators want NBC primary debate to focus on climate change Collins offering bill to boost battery research as GOP pushes energy 'innovation' 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 HoevenSenators introduce bill to prevent border agency from selling personal data Overnight Energy: Bipartisan Senate group seeks more funding for carbon capture technology | Dems want documents on Interior pick's lobbying work | Officials push to produce more electric vehicle batteries in US Officials, automakers aim to produce more electric vehicle batteries in US: report 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) TesterThreat of impeachment takes oxygen out of 2019 agenda Overnight Defense: Trump officials say efforts to deter Iran are working | Trump taps new Air Force secretary | House panel passes defense bill that limits border wall funds GOP angst grows amid Trump trade war 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 CollinsThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Collins offering bill to boost battery research as GOP pushes energy 'innovation' Biden says Congress must move to protect abortion rights MORE (Maine) and Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiMurkowski celebrates birthday with electric scooter ride Overnight Energy: Park Service plans to pay full-time staff through entrance fees | Oil companies join blitz for carbon tax | Interior chief takes heat for saying he hasn't 'lost sleep' over climate change Democrats grill Trump Interior chief for saying he hasn't 'lost sleep' over climate change 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 AlexanderOvernight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Senators unveil sweeping bipartisan health care package | House lawmakers float Medicare pricing reforms | Dems offer bill to guarantee abortion access Bipartisan senators reveal sweeping health care package Collins offering bill to boost battery research as GOP pushes energy 'innovation' 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 BarrassoTrump boxed in on trade Export-Import Bank back to full strength after Senate confirmations Mike Enzi announces he'll retire from Senate after 2020 MORE (Wyo.), a member of the Senate Republican leadership, to introduce a bill expanding exports of liquefied natural gas. Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetOvernight Energy: Democrats ask if EPA chief misled on vehicle emissions | Dem senators want NBC debate focused on climate change | 2020 hopeful John Delaney unveils T climate plan 2020 hopeful John Delaney unveils T climate plan Trump Jr. slams Republican committee chairman: 'Too weak to stand up to the Democrats' 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 ReidLobbying World Mitch McConnell is not invincible Seven big decisions facing Biden in 2020 primary 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.”