WASHINGTON — With Democrats taking over the House for the first time in eight years, Massachusetts’ all-Democratic delegation stands to regain clout in the Capitol, with two likely chairmen poised to help shepherd the Democratic agenda in the chamber.
But they and their party will face a conundrum when coming up with that agenda — do they try to work with the unpopular president or satisfy their fired-up base with obstruction and aggressive oversight?
The two likely chairmen from Massachusetts say they’re willing to work with President Trump on some areas, including lowering prescription drug prices and updating the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, signalling the new House majority is at least publicly rejecting the “resistance” label now that they’re poised to take charge. But the president warned from the White House Wednesday that any legislative cooperation is contingent upon Democrats’ backing off their oversight plans. “If they do that, then it’s just a war-like posture,” he said.
“We want a real infrastructure bill and I think we will be able to get one,” said Representative Jim McGovern, who is in line to take the helm of the influential Rules Committee in January. “We need to rebuild Massachusetts, we need to rebuild our country, and we need to create good jobs.”
“This is a time to prove that we can govern,” said Representative Richard Neal, a Springfield Democrat who is on track to chair the Ways and Means Committee, where bills concerning Medicare or Social Security would originate. “It also allows us to set the table for 2020.”
Representative Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader who is running to be House speaker again, also mentioned infrastructure as a top priority for the new Congress this week. In a jubilant late night speech Tuesday, she hinted the party would seek to work with the president on at least some issues, while rigorously overseeing the administration on other issues.
“We have all had enough of division” Pelosi said. “The American people want peace.” Trump lavishly praised Pelosi Wednesday, saying she loves America.
But Tuesday’s election results mean a dramatic realignment of power in Washington, with Democrats gaining control of the House of Representatives — and its subpoena power — for the first time since the Tea Party-propelled Republican victory in 2010.
Republicans, who largely opted for the “obstruct” route after that takeover of the House, have trouble believing Democrats would risk working with Trump, given a majority of their voters say in polls they would like to see the president impeached.
And the appetite for a big bipartisan deal likely won’t be huge within the GOP either, if Democrats are hauling Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, and other Trump fixtures in front of House committees for grueling oversight hearings. Democrats have already expressed interest in subpoenaing Trump’s tax returns, re-booting the House Russia investigation, and digging into whether Trump’s businesses are profiting from foreign governments. Neal told the Globe several months ago he would request Trump’s tax returns when he became chairman.
“I am skeptical that Washington Democrats would be willing to give the president a win on a major bipartisan piece of legislation going into the 2020 campaign,” said Michael Steel, a GOP strategist who used to work for former GOP speaker John Boehner.
But some Democrats see a political upside for Democrats in attempting to deliver on promises Trump didn’t keep — such as lowering drug prices and rebuilding the country’s roads and bridges. Trump released an underwhelming infrastructure plan in February that went nowhere on GOP-controlled Capitol Hill.
“It picks up an opportunity that Trump gave away,” said former Massachusetts lawmaker Barney Frank. “He promised it, and he spent all the money for it on tax cuts.”
And Frank said he doesn’t believe Trump would actually sign a Democratic transportation bill, assuming it could even get through the Republican-controlled Senate. That lowers the risk to Democrats that he would run on that accomplishment in 2020.
Democratic lawmakers, however, say they are taking the president at his word.
“We’ll remain hopeful that he meant what he said two years ago and that he would support an infrastructure bill,” said Democratic Representative Katherine Clark of Cambridge.
Democrats were swept into office by a base that wants them to resist the unpopular president but also by less committed partisans in red districts who were driven to the polls by pricey health care premiums and other kitchen-table issues.
Democrats will walk a fine line in attempting to deliver concrete policy changes, which would require bipartisan support and the president’s signature, while also conducting the aggressive oversight that’s sure to alienate the White House and their Republican colleagues.
At the heart of this debate will be the newly empowered Massachusetts delegation, which is riding this blue wave into the best position on Capitol Hill it has had in decades. In addition to McGovern and Neal helming key committees, Clark will move into a role overseeing transportation on the Appropriations Committee and is running for a leadership spot in the Democratic Caucus. Representative Stephen Lynch will also move into a leadership role on the Oversight Committee, which will be a hotbed of activity under Democratic control.
Representatives Seth Moulton and Joe Kennedy haven’t stated leadership intentions, but they have built reputations as effective fund-raisers and campaigners this cycle, with Moulton’s recruitment of veterans looking especially prescient. The delegation will be at its highest profile and most influential since Senator Ted Kennedy died.
“This puts us in a position that we haven’t really seen since the days of Tip O’Neil and Joe Moakley,” said McGovern, of Worcester.
Representative Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr., the legendary Cambridge lawmaker, was speaker of the House from 1977 to 1987 and was so effective at sending money back to Massachusetts that the massive Big Dig tunnel under downtown Boston was named after him. Representative J. Joseph Moakley, the former chairman of the Rules Committee, maneuvered McGovern onto the Rules Committee just a few months before he died, telling him to keep his head down and wait his turn to be chair. He also placed Neal on Ways and Means.
Moakley’s maneuvering has finally paid off, decades later, as Neal and McGovern will have their fingerprints on most major pieces of the Democratic agenda. So far, that agenda is being hammered out, with drug prices, transportation, a LGBT equality bill, and gun control high on the list.
On the Rules Committee, McGovern would serve as the gatekeeper for all legislation, deciding which bills move forward to the House floor and which bills quietly die in committee. McGovern is planning an ethics package to crack down on conflicts of interest among lawmakers and “rehabilitate the image of the House of Representatives,” he told the Globe. This likely includes banning members from sitting on corporate boards.
On Ways and Means, Neal said he wants to stop states’ attempts to roll back protections for preexisting health conditions, as well as reverse the cap on state and local tax exemptions passed in the tax reform law.
Neal, who has watched partisanship intensify over his 30 years in the House, still remains hopeful the next two years will have a different vibe.
“I don’t think we’re going to calm the president’s personality down, but I do think there’s some places where we can get some victories for the American people,” Neal said. “I’d like to go back to those days when we got along and had some common ground.”Liz Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin