WASHINGTON – House Democrats, recovering from their failed push to remove President Donald Trump from office, are making a sharp pivot to talking about health care and economic issues, turning away from their investigations of the president as they focus on preserving their majority.
Top Democrats said that oversight of the president will continue, and they plan in particular to press Attorney General William Barr over what they said are Trump’s efforts to compromise the independence of the Justice Department. But for now, at least, they have shelved the idea of subpoenaing Trump’s former national security adviser, who was a central figure in the president’s impeachment trial.
In a series of private meetings over the past week and in written instructions she distributed to lawmakers last Thursday (Feb 13) before a recess this week, Speaker Nancy Pelosi made clear that the emphasis must shift.
“Health care, health care, health care,” the speaker said, describing the party’s message during a recent closed-door meeting, according to a person in the room who insisted on anonymity to reveal private conversations. She said they had to be laser-focused on getting reelected: “When you make a decision to win, then you have to make every decision in favour of winning.”
The move is particularly striking given how aggressively Trump, emboldened by his acquittal by the Senate, has moved to take revenge on his perceived enemies and push the limits of his power. But just as they did before the 2018 midterm elections, Democrats appear to have decided that focusing on Trump’s near-daily stream of norm-shattering words and deeds only elevates him, while alienating the swing voters they need to maintain their hold on the House and have a chance at winning the Senate.
Given that the House has already taken the most powerful step a Congress can take to hold a chief executive accountable – impeachment – Democrats reason that there is little more they can do. Some said Trump brings enough attention to his conduct all on his own.
“His erratic, corrupt, unconstitutional behaviour speaks for itself at this point,” Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said in an interview last Friday.
In the nearly two weeks since the Senate acquitted Trump, Pelosi has been urging her rank and file to emphasise the same three-pronged “For the People” agenda – creating jobs, cleaning up corruption in Washington and, above all, bringing down the high cost of health care – that won Democrats the majority in 2018.
Democrats said the US$4.8 trillion (S$6.7 trillion) budget Trump released last week makes it easier to contrast his priorities with their own. The budget would cut funding for Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, food stamps and federal student loans. In the “recess packet” Pelosi distributed to lawmakers before they went home, she offered a list of suggested events in their districts – like visits to a senior centre, a food bank and an after-school programme – that could serve to highlight the impact of the proposed cuts.
“What the president has put forth is a destructive and irrational budget that intentionally goes after working families and vulnerable Americans,” the document said.
Pelosi also brought in Steven Rattner, an investment banker who advised President Barack Obama in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, to brief Democrats privately about ways to target Trump’s economic record.
Representative Mary Gay Scanlon, a freshman Democrat who represents a swing district in Pennsylvania, said that was what she would talk about when she was at home.
“We keep seeing more and more data about the recovery that the administration is touting, the great economy,” she said. “But what hits people who have a lot of stock holdings is not hitting the families in my district. Over half of them are underwater at the end of every month now, once they pay for health care and child care and housing.”
The move to put impeachment in the rear-view mirror comes after a dismal two weeks for Democrats. First, the Iowa caucuses turned into an electoral debacle, with no clear winner. Then a triumphant Trump delivered his State of the Union address and was acquitted the next day. Finally, Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, won the Democratic presidential primary in New Hampshire, jangling the nerves of moderate lawmakers.
At the same time, cases related to other House investigations of the president, including examinations of his finances and whether he violated the emoluments clause of the Constitution by accepting payments from representatives of foreign governments who frequent his hotels, are working their way through the courts.
The Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether Trump can block the release of his financial records; a ruling is expected by June. An appeals court is considering whether Trump can order his advisers, including Donald McGahn, the former White House counsel, from complying with congressional subpoenas.
Still, Massachusetts Representative Katherine Clark and vice chairman of the Democratic caucus, said Democrats believed the cure for Trump’s behaviour runs through the ballot box.
“A lot of this is going to be up to making sure that we are successful in November,” she said.
Democrats said they have never taken their eyes off their legislative agenda, in particular lowering health care costs. “House Democrats need to talk about the same issues they’ve been talking about all along, which include the cost of health care and the need to lower the cost of prescription drugs, and about cleaning up government so that it works for the people and not for special interests,” he said.