WASHINGTON – Despite the return of Republican majorities in both houses of Congress in January, Maryland’s Democrats still plan to find ways of influencing policy debates and legislation.
In fact, even with some new faces in the Maryland congressional delegation, it is in roughly the same position it was in before the Nov. 8 election, with one major difference: Republican Donald Trump will replace Democrat Barack Obama in the White House.
Senator-elect Chris Van Hollen and Sen. Ben Cardin will be among the 48 Democratic senators tasked with trying to defend Obama’s health care legacy as well as other domestic and foreign policy achievements and entitlement programs. The Marylanders say they also will oppose any Republican effort to restrict women’s rights and will seek to keep the issue of economic inequality in the forefront.
“We’re going to continue to fight on the issues of economic fairness – equal pay for equal work,” Van Hollen told Capital News Service last week. “We will fight tooth and nail against any effort to roll back the clock on social justice, women’s rights and all the efforts we’ve made in our country to build a more perfect union. We know we’ve come a long way down that road, but we have a long journey still ahead and we’re not going back.”
What clout the Maryland senators and their Democratic colleagues have is limited, but they have help from the unusual rules of the Senate, which generally require 60 votes to pass most significant legislation.
Cardin is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and thus is in a position to define differences with President-elect Donald Trump on foreign policy.
Late last week, Van Hollen landed an assignment on the Senate Appropriations Committee, the panel that shapes all the spending bills and a rare plum for a freshman senator.
Outgoing Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., was the vice chairwoman of the appropriations panel. She said in a statement that Van Hollen would be “an excellent advocate for meeting the day-to-day needs of Maryland’s families and the long-range needs of the nation.”
Look for Van Hollen to also become a more national figure: incoming Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., tapped the Maryland senator to be chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which will be responsible to defending the party’s Senate seats in 2018. Van Hollen is the first freshman senator to hold that key party post.
In the House, Maryland’s seven Democrats face a GOP that only needs a majority vote on legislation.
Representative-elect Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery County, told Capital News Service he still was assessing what kind of influence he could wield.
“I’m going to check it out,” he said.
Meanwhile, Raskin said he is “trying to make friends” in the House with Republicans as well as Democrats.
“I do think this is a moment of some political fluidity, because of course the Republican leadership was opposed to Trump and he was opposed to them and they were fractured in a dozen different ways during their election, so there are different strains within the Republican coalition,” the new congressman said.
“There are some that are truly libertarian, and we can work with them on criminal justice issues and we can work with them on marriage equality and LGBT rights,” Raskin said. “There are parts of the coalition that are frankly authoritarian and are not interested in criminal justice reform.”
Maryland’s lone Republican, Rep. Andy Harris, R-Cockeysville, sought to boost his standing in the new Congress with a bid for the chairmanship of the GOP House’s think tank, the Republican Study Committee. But he lost last week to Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C.
Republicans maintained narrow control of the Senate in the Nov. 8 elections, winning 51 seats (a runoff in Louisiana will determine which party gets the 100th seat but it will not change the balance of party power). Republicans also hold 239 of the 435 seats in the House.
While that gives Trump a major advantage as he crafts legislation and policy, the Republican Party was deeply divided over their nominee and it remains to be seen how various GOP factions will find common ground on such thorny issues as immigration reform, foreign policy and taxes.
And it’s possible Senate Democrats could be called upon by the White House for help in some instances, said Bruce Oppenheimer, a Vanderbilt University public policy professor.
“There are some areas where the Trump Administration or Trump may want to go which will not be popular with conservative Republicans,” Oppenheimer said. “So it may be on some of those policy issues that he seeks out Democratic support, where they can play a bigger role.”
One of Trump’s goals drawing early criticism from some conservatives is his 10-year plan to invest $1 trillion into restoring highways, bridges and other infrastructure. Democrats also campaigned on making infrastructure spending a priority.
“We want to work with Donald Trump on the areas where there’s common ground,” Van Hollen said. “Modernizing our national infrastructure – we know around this area how important it is.”
“It’s not just roads and bridges and transit ways, but also broadband, clean energy platforms,” he continued. “I’ve put forward proposals in the past to help address that issue. I would welcome the opportunity to work on those particular issues and the other issues where there’s common ground.”
However, Senate Republicans have expressed confidence in their ability to enact legislation without Democratic assistance.
“We have a temporary lease on power,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters after the election. “We have to use it responsibly.”
McConnell repeatedly has said the GOP will be gunning for Obamacare, calling it one of the “single worst pieces of legislation among many bad pieces of legislation” from the first two years of Obama’s presidency.
One tactic Republicans could use to end all or portions of Obamacare is a Senate procedure called reconciliation. It can be used once a year and requires only a simple 51-vote majority from the Senate, making it filibuster-proof.
Reconciliation is meant for revenue and spending bills, and the relevancy of reconciliation provisions can be challenged. While reconciliation cannot explicitly repeal Obamacare, it can cut off its funding and thus severely cripple it, Oppenheimer said.
“I think the bigger question is not whether they have the power to sort of emasculate Obamacare …using reconciliation rather than repealing it directly,” Oppenheimer said. “The real question is, doing that, what do they have left?”
Republicans used reconciliation last year to try to repeal major portions of Obamacare and defund Planned Parenthood. The bill made it to Obama’s desk, where he vetoed it in January. The House subsequently failed to muster the necessary two-thirds vote to override the veto.
Van Hollen told Capital News Service that it was not clear whether the Republicans would try to use the reconciliation procedure.
“But that’s an issue, that’s a real issue,” he said.
Whatever health care program Republicans try to install to replace the Affordable Care Act, along with any other legislation they come up with, will have to come to the Senate floor under normal procedures.
To pass their proposed bills, Republicans will need some bipartisan support. Maryland might not have the senators the Republicans reach out to though.
“If you’re the Trump Administration, or Mitch McConnell, those would not be the first two senators you go after,” Oppenheimer said. “So my sense is, if you’re looking to get 60 votes, you wouldn’t expect the difference between 52 and 60 to include the two Maryland senators.”
Still, being in the Senate gives Van Hollen a stronger chance to make a difference, said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
“In some ways, it’s better for Chris Van Hollen to be in the Senate,” Eberly said.
He explained Van Hollen will have more sway as a junior member of the minority in the Senate than as a senior member of the minority in the House because “norms and rules (in the Senate) give respect to individual members.”