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Progressives are Demanding Obstruction and Senators are Listening

Less than two weeks into the Trump administration, any hope of bipartisan cooperation has nearly evaporated.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer of N.Y., flanked by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., left, and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017, to discuss the nomination of Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga. to become Health and Human Services secretary. (AP Photo/Zach Gibson)Zach Gibson / AP

Outraged demonstrators are lining up outside of senators’ homes. They’re disrupting town hall meetings. They’re jamming congressional phone lines -- and they’re doing it to their own political allies.

Taking a page out of the Tea Party playbook, liberal activists have started turning their ire against the people over whom they have the most leverage, demanding Democrats on Capitol Hill throw as much sand in the gears of President Trump’s agenda as possible at the outset of a high-stakes battle over new Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch.

And Democrats in the Senate, who hold their party’s only constitutional check on the executive branch thanks to the filibuster and their power over presidential appointments, are starting to deliver.

Reversing course on earlier paeans about finding areas to work with the new president, Democrats have taken the extraordinary steps this week of boycotting committee votes on cabinet nominees and pledging opposition to Trump’s Gorsuch, whose qualifications they do not question.

Less than two weeks into the Trump administration, any hope of bipartisan cooperation has nearly evaporated.

“I’m prepared to shatter precedent in order to make it clear that we are not going to stand for what Trump is doing,” Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut said off the Senate floor Tuesday. “The protests and the actions from Democratic senators are mirrors of each other... We are rising to what is a truly exceptional moment.”

An estimated 3,000 protesters gathered outside Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer’s Brooklyn apartment Tuesday night for a demonstration dubbed, “What the f**k, Chuck?!”

The crowd had to be on the Democrat’s mind as he blasted out a statement calling for a 60-vote threshold to confirm Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

“A little more than a week into the Trump presidency, the new Administration has violated our core values, challenged the separation of powers, and tested the very fabric of our Constitution in unprecedented fashion,” Schumer said. “It is clear that the Supreme Court will be tried in ways that few Courts have been tested since the earliest days of the Republic.”

Senate Democrats were initially caught off guard by how little cooperation their base was willing to tolerate.

Even the most progressive members, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who typically has her finger on the pulse of the movement, was forced to explain her vote for Housing Secretary Ben Carson after coming under rare fire from her left flank. “Resistance means resisting,” wrote Markos Moulitsas, the founder of the liberal Daily Kos blog. “And if even progressive champions like Warren can’t figure that out, we really are in trouble.”

Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine reported receiving 25,000 calls and letters against Education Sec. Nominee Betsy DeVos. And more than 200 showed up outside the San Francisco home of California Sen. Dianne Feinstein. “In my lifetime, I have never seen this many people out on the streets,” Feinstein said Wednesday on MSNBC.

A coalition of liberal groups including and People’s Action have begun organizing weekly “Resist Tuesday” protests at over 100 locations nationwide, including the offices of Democratic members of Congress.

“Over the last week, as the protests have gotten bigger, we've begun to see Democrats start to move into an oppositional stance to Trump and his nominees,” said Joe Dinkin of the liberal Working Families Party, which is also involved in organizing those protests. “We want to see the Democrats use every tool in the toolbox to block Trump and his agenda.”

It’s a remarkable turnaround for Democrats and their supporters for them to now adopt the kind of reflexive obstruction that Republicans pioneered under President Obama.

As members of a party whose core philosophy depends on a functioning government, Democrats at first wanted to pick their battles and avoid further damaging the institution of the Senate. And they worried that blocking Trump’s initial cabinet nominees would only lead to worse second-round draft picks.

But their base is increasingly making it clear that anything short of total, unrelenting opposition is tantamount to surrender. And after their olive branch to Trump was met with a slap in the face in the form of early executive orders to crackdown on immigration, Democrats are heading to the trenches.

“Step step by step, outrage by outrage, Trump is shutting down that path,” Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse said when asked about the possibility of cooperating with the president.

The very liberal senator from a very Democratic state, found himself swarmed by some 1,500 angry protesters on the steps outside a town hall meeting Sunday night. They demanded to know why he voted for CIA Director Mike Pompeo, one of Trump’s least controversial cabinet picks, and chanted “obstruct! obstruct! obstruct!”

In a dramatic scene, Whitehouse used a protester’s bullhorn to apologize for not giving a fuller explanation of his Pompeo vote before eliciting cheers for every “no” as he ticked through a list of cabinet picks he planned to vote against.

"I think it reflects the dying hopes that there might have been a pivot by Trump and that he might have gone the route of responsible governance,” Whitehouse said later in an interview of the protest. “My main hope is that we not get so outraged so often that outrage fatigue sets in and we don't have the kind of resilient persistent public pressure through the 2018 election.”

David Segal, who runs the group Demand Progress that helped organize the Whitehouse protest, said the strategy behind targeting blue state Democrats is simple: Politicians are most likely to listen to the people they depend on for votes, donations, and volunteer labor.

“The best way to constrain Trump is to get them to actually stand up and wield their power against him,” said Segal. “We demand more than symbolism. ... Trump has made clear who he is, and we need our elected Democrats to use their constitutional powers to shut him down.”

Even establishment organs have been demanding a tougher line. The Center for American Progress, a think tank founded by former Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, has called on Senate Democrats to use procedural tactics in an unprecedented way to slow the chamber’s action.

“As millions of people flood the streets with the largest public demonstrations in decades against the Trump administration, Democrats should heed the demand for strong opposition,” CAP’s President, Neera Tanden, wrote in a memo advising Democrats on how to handle Gorsuch’s nomination.

Senate Democrats say they’ve ratcheted up their opposition due to principle, not the protests. But they’re clearly listening to the outcry.

“It’s reinforcing my priorities and my values,” Delaware Sen. Chris Coons told NBC News.

Even North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who is facing what is expected to be one of the toughest reelection battles in 2018, cited the volume of constituent calls to her office when announcing her decision to oppose Betsy DeVos.

“When it’s so overwhelming, it really sends a message,” she said in an interview.

The protests have made it clear that there is a political incentive to obstruct, whether Democrats are motivated by it or not.

Six Democrats even voted against Treasury Secretary Elaine Chao on Tuesday, a relatively uncontroversial nominee who otherwise sailed through confirmation.

Almost all of those voting against Chao are seen as potential presidential candidates in 2020: New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, and Warren, who seemed to have learned a lesson from her vote to confirm Carson.

Gillibrand, who has long been seen as an appealing presidential option for the party, was briefly elevated to hero status last week for her nearly universal opposition to Trump’s nominees.

“She will get a leg up as a leader of the #resistance should she run in 2020 despite her record of wobbly, Clintonesque centrism, simply for doing what should have been elementary for the rest of her colleagues,” proclaimed Slate under the headline, “What the Hell Is Wrong With Senate Democrats?”

And Schumer, perhaps looking to shore up his left flank, notably also voted against Chao.

“The bottom line is the people who go out to protest need to understand that their voices are being heard and they are not acting in vain,” Whitehouse said.