House Democrats are heading toward the 100th day of Donald Trump’s presidency with the kind of feel-good unity they haven’t experienced since the election.
Coming off a rowdy recess where Republicans continued to be skewered by constituents on everything from health care to Russia to Trump’s tax returns, Democrats say walking through the political wilderness isn’t so bad — at least for now.
It’s a stunning reversal from the despair dominating the caucus just a few months ago when Trump entered the White House and Republicans seemed poised to wreak havoc on Democratic priorities.
“Donald Trump’s administration is a complete and utter disaster. And Paul Ryan’s leadership is so lackluster and weak,” Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), a frequent thorn in his own leadership’s side, said in an interview. “I think we’re seeing a resurgence in the Democratic Party.”
House Democrats are ready to flex their muscles, providing a list of demands Republicans must meet if they want Democratic votes to keep the government running beyond Friday. And they could be key players on tax reform and infrastructure in the coming months, if Trump ends up needing bipartisan buy-in.
“It’s a great time to be a Democrat,” said Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly, warning Republicans that even if they do achieve some of their biggest goals — like dismantling Obamacare — they will pay at the polls.
“We know we’re going to lose some battles between now and 2018 but every one of those losses costs the other side votes,” he said.
A surge of energy rippled through the Democratic caucus last month after Republican attempts to repeal Obamacare crashed and burned in dramatic, multi-day fashion.
The party is also bolstered by its competitive streak in a pair of special elections in long-held GOP districts in Georgia and Kansas, which they hope could signal a Democratic wave in 2018.
“The president is coming up to his first 100 days with very little to show for it,” said New York Rep. Joe Crowley, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. “I think Democrats are buoyed by what they see happening.”
House Democrats emerged from the election shell-shocked — Trump had won the White House, Republicans still controlled the Senate, and House Democrats only picked up a handful of seats, despite boasting about the potential for double-digit wins.
But after a series of self-inflicted stumbles by the administration and Congress, including the Obamacare repeal implosion and botched travel ban, Democrats say they haven’t faced the doomsday they were forecasting in November.
The turnaround is remarkable for a caucus that just a few months ago, fearing several more years in the House minority, saw a brief challenge to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s leadership.
Now, some members are even talking openly about the possibility of taking back the House in 2018. They would need to pick up two dozen seats, an uphill battle to say the least. But the chatter speaks to the optimism the caucus is feeling.
And Gallego, who voted against Pelosi in last year’s leadership race, said the good fortune will lead to high expectations in November 2018.
“I’m happier than I was a couple months ago,” Gallego said. "[But] if we cannot pick up the 24 seats within the first two years of this presidency, then we need to reevaluate our whole leadership structure. Because we are essentially going to be in a long, prolonged legislative desert.”
In the immediate future, House Democrats have significant leverage in ongoing talks to keep the government open beyond the April 28 deadline.
With hardline conservatives frequently opposed to spending bills, Republican leaders will likely need a number of Democratic votes to avoid a government shutdown. And Pelosi is nothing if not an expert vote counter.
Democratic leaders say they won’t accept a Republican proposal that funds Trump’s proposed border wall, pours federal dollars into a “deportation force” or blocks federal grants for sanctuary cities, all top priorities for a White House looking for its first big legislative win.
Democrats also say Republicans must agree to maintain Obamacare subsidies for lower-income people in the spending bill, a program Trump has threatened to derail.
Some members are also threatening to withhold support for any short-term funding extension, which is likely to be needed, unless the broad outlines of a larger deal are already agreed to by both parties.
With a spending deal elusive, Democrats also say a Republican push to hold an Obamacare repeal vote soon, possibly in the middle of bipartisan funding talks, isn’t helping negotiations.
“I think, once again, it’s tough to ask for Democratic cooperation on one [issue] when you’re engaged in this wrecking ball mission on the other, especially since the two may very well be linked,” Connolly said.
At best, in Democrats’ minds, Republicans fall on their face again on health care, dealing another embarrassment to House GOP leadership and Trump. At worst, the bill makes it through the House where they think it has a good chance of dying in the Senate.
“I think it’s foolhardy to try to resurrect that bill,” Crowley said. “The likelihood of that bill passing the Senate is so remote…it’s not even remote. It’s not going to happen.”
But for every House Republican that votes in favor of the repeal, Gallego reasoned, the 2018 campaign ads will have written themselves.
Voting for an Obamacare repeal “gives us our specific targets,” Gallego said. “If they want to write their own obituaries, we shouldn’t get in the way of that.”