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Democrats are facing a fight for relevance

The party must immediately contend with Trump's first 100-day agenda

CNN  — 

Democrats plotting a return from the political wilderness are facing their first big dilemma: how fiercely to fight President-elect Donald Trump.

A new conservative era will dawn in Washington Tuesday when the next Congress, dominated by Republicans, is sworn in. GOP leaders are exuberant about the Trump administration that will soon follow and are preparing to send a blizzard of bills to the new White House.

“We are going to reap what we have sown, which is victory, the fact that we control both houses of Congress and now the presidency,” Steve Cortes, a former Trump campaign adviser, told CNN.

That leaves Democrats facing a fight not just over policy – but for relevance.

The party is quickly facing an uncomfortable choice: they can either work with the GOP on issues that might resonate with Midwestern voters who rejected them or take a just-say-no stance that could make it easier to score political points while leaving the burden of governing to the GOP.

Democrats don’t have long to pick a route.

Most immediately, they face a vote Tuesday in the House on a GOP measure that would gut Congress’ independent ethics watchdog. Democrats must also contend with Trump’s first 100 days’ agenda that aims to chip away at key elements of President Barack Obama’s legacy, such as his signature health care law.

Fundamental questions

In the longer term, Democrats face more fundamental questions, including how to promote a new generation of leaders and win back disaffected blue collar workers in the Rust Belt who supported Trump. These dynamics are playing out ahead of the 2018 midterms in which several Democrats are competing in traditionally Republican states. And, of course, the 2020 presidential race looms with no clear leader for the party.

There are perhaps some areas of common ground between the two parties on issues such as trade.

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But for now, Democrats will likely focus on making the coming months as politically bruising as possible for the GOP. They’ll aim to make a case that Trump’s Cabinet of millionaires and billionaires conflicts with the blue collar themes of his campaign. And they’ll concentrate their fire on eight of Trump’s nominees, using political maneuvers in a bid to delay their confirmation.

Targets include secretary of state designate Rex Tillerson, attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions and health and human services secretary pick Tom Price.

If it works, the tactic could slow Trump’s fast start by clogging the Senate in a way that delays key GOP priorities.

“If Republicans think they can jam through a whole slate of nominees without a fair hearing process, they are sorely mistaken,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said in a statement.

Frustrating Trump’s hopes of getting a running start could boost morale among grieving Democrats steeling for the seemingly inevitable passage of huge tax cuts and a bill repealing Obamacare. A few early successes could also build support for a strategy to jam up some legislation in the Senate, where the lack of a filibuster-proof Republican majority remains the only curb on GOP power in Washington.

After all, a policy of blanket obstruction worked for Republicans in 2009 and 2010, when Democrats had a monopoly on power in Washington. The GOP forced Obama to pass huge programs, including an $800 billion stimulus, early versions of the Affordable Care Act and a Wall Street reform bill, largely with only Democratic votes.

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The tactic electrified conservative opposition in the country, contributing to the birth of the Tea Party movement. Democrats paid the price for tough votes in midterm elections, setting the stage for a Republican comeback.

“I think it’s really important that Democrats come out in this new Congress and demonstrate that they are not going just going to go along with the Trump get along,” said Symone Sanders, a former spokesperson for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. “We should not budge.”

Populist opposition

Potential leaders of a populist opposition campaign to Trump includes Sen. Sanders himself, who used the politics of protest to strong effect during his Democratic primary bid. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren may also have an incentive to emerge as a leading voice against Trump as buzz stirs over a possible presidential primary bid in 2020.

Most Democrats will vote against repealing Obamacare. But the real political action on the issue will come when Republicans face the tougher assignment of coming up with an alternative.

Trump has vowed to retain popular parts of Obamacare, including the ban on denying insurance to patients with pre-existing conditions and a provision allowing children to stay on their parents’ policies until the age of 26.

But it’s not clear how the economics of health care would work without other aspects of the bill. Republicans also face the responsibility of dealing with 20 million people insured for the first time under Obama’s legacy law.

At that point, Schumer’s Senate Democrats will have a choice: work with the GOP on a replacement, or withhold all cooperation in a bid to saddle Republicans with blame for depriving millions of people of coverage.

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“It’s the old thing of going into a china shop – you break it, you own it,” House Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told top Democrats on a call Monday.

Democrats are already looking at the second wave of GOP reform legislation, targeting House Speaker Paul Ryan’s long desire to reform Medicare by providing vouchers for seniors to buy insurance, a move critics say is tantamount to privatization and wouldn’t meet the entire cost of care.

A Medicare battle could provide Democrats with a big, galvanizing issue that would unite their party and help them win back public support – especially as Trump vowed not to touch Medicare benefits.

“If they try to take away a guarantee to seniors across this country that they should have health care when they retire at 65, you will hear a … cry across the country that will scare many Republicans,” Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell said on CNN on Monday.

Defending Obamacare

The first indications of how Democrats plan to defend Obamacare could emerge Wednesday, when the outgoing President visits Capitol Hill to talk tactics. Vice President-elect Mike Pence will also be at the Capitol that day to huddle with Republican on Obamacare.

There’s no guarantee a policy of complete obstruction for Democrats will work as well as it did for Republicans. For starters, Democrats don’t have the numbers to stall Trump’s agenda. Republicans are already talking about using the budget maneuver known as reconciliation in the Senate to gut Obamacare funding in a way that would bypass the filibuster.

And the decision by Democrats three years ago to invoke the “nuclear option” by effectively removing filibusters against most presidential nominations means that in the end, it’s almost certain Trump’s nominees will be confirmed.

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Democrats, still reeling from November’s debacle, also appear to lack the organization of Republicans in 2009. And if Trump’s victory was about anything, it was a cry of frustration by voters with Washington and its political establishment. So it’s not clear that simply replicating inertia is the way for Democrats to appeal to a new generation of voters.

Charlie Crist, the former Republican governor of Florida who is now a freshman Democratic House member, said the only way back is to actually accomplish something.

Crist said his voters told him, “‘Charlie, if you win, you guys have got to work together up there to do what’s right for the American people,’” he told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union” on Sunday. “They’ve had it up to here with the divisiveness and the arguing.”

Partnering with Trump

Such sentiments are one reason why expectations are mounting that Democrats could decide to partner with Trump on his proposal for a huge infrastructure spending plan – possibly worth up to $1 trillion. Democrats, especially from the Sanders wing of the party, may also find common ground with Trump on international trade deals.

Working with Trump on such issues would offer the Democrats the prospect of some concrete achievements to show voters in 2018.

It might also be a way of shielding vulnerable Democrats like West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who may need to cozy up to Trump before facing the mid-terms in his heartland. Siding with Trump on infrastructure and trade could also drive a wedge between Trump and Republicans who are pro-trade and skeptical of big spending projects.

In the end, a hybrid strategy might make the most sense for Democrats – use Trump and the GOP as a foil and slow them where they can – while seeking to pick one or two areas where his aspirations coincide with their values.

Either way, it’s going to be a long, hard road.

CNN’s Dana Bash, Ted Barrett, Deidre Walsh and Eric Bradner contributed to this story.