WASHINGTON >> Democrats set to run the House for the first time in eight years have a brimming list of priorities to tackle, topped by election laws and ethics rules, prescription drug prices and infrastructure.
But with the 2020 presidential and congressional elections on the horizon — and yes, they’re already coloring decision-making — most Democratic proposals have a better chance of becoming campaign issues than enacted law.
One thing seems certain: A Democratic-controlled House will mean plenty of hearings and investigations. Newly armed with the power to set the agenda and issue subpoenas, Democrats are itching to burrow into President Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign’s connections with Russia, his personal finances and his undermining of President Barack Obama’s health care law and environmental protections.
Here’s a look at Democrats’ early priorities and the hurdles they face:
Unlike the Senate, where determined opponents can use procedural roadblocks to derail the majority’s legislative train, the House operates on raw political muscle. A united majority can get its way every time.
Because Democrats will control the schedule, GOP efforts to repeal Obama’s health care law or broadly cut taxes anew won’t see the light of day. That still leaves Democrats with decisions and internal divisions to sort through.
On what issues should they try striking deals with Trump and Republicans to show they can govern? Which bills should be designed to highlight their values, knowing that many will go nowhere in a GOP-run Senate? Which investigations could prove fruitful and sate liberal voters’ demands for bruising Trump, and which risk becoming counterproductive distractions?
Democrats’ answers will depend on who their leaders are, how demanding the party’s hard-left base proves to be and how their burgeoning field of 2020 presidential candidates steers the debate.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., hoping to reprise her 2007 through 2010 role as speaker, has talked about a first bill — HR1 — revamping campaign finance laws, election statutes and ethics requirements. The goal: Demonstrating that Democrats care about reform and that Trump’s “drain the swamp” mantra has achieved anything but.
While final decisions remain, Democrats are considering steps like curbing large political donations, toughening disclosure requirements for corporations and big contributors and offering public financing to congressional candidates. They could propose making it easier for people to register and vote, helping states protect ballot security, requiring presidential and vice presidential candidates to release tax returns and barring lawmakers from joining corporate boards.
OTHER EARLY GOALS
Democrats want to lower prescription drug costs, perhaps by letting the gigantic Medicare program negotiate prices for pharmaceuticals it purchases. This is a potential area for deal-making with Trump, who’s discussed cutting drug costs.
Democrats want to reduce health care costs overall, which their candidates highlighted in their midterm election campaigns, and buttress Obama’s health care law. Ways and Means Committee Democrats are considering reversing Trump’s move to allow low-cost, short-term insurance policies that don’t require coverage for people with pre-existing conditions.
They also want to upgrade roads, schools, mass transit and communication systems in what Pelosi calls “a new, green way,” an effort Democrats say would raise paychecks. Trump has also championed infrastructure. The big dispute is over how to finance the mammoth investment.
ALSO ON THE AGENDA
Even as Trump made anti-immigrant fervor a focus of his campaigning for Republicans this year, Democrats talked of helping young “Dreamer” migrants stay in the U.S. permanently. A battle with Trump, who has tried ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that protects hundreds of thousands of young migrants from deportation, ended in a Senate stalemate last winter.
Other Democratic priorities include expanding background check requirements for gun purchasers; requiring civil rights protections for sexual orientation and gender identity and reversing Trump rollbacks of Obama-era curbs on greenhouse gas emissions and Trump’s expansion of mineral drilling on public lands.
A TEMPTING TARGET
How to pay for their initiatives? Some Democrats say privately that one possibility is erasing reductions that last year’s GOP-written, $1.5 trillion tax cut bestowed on wealthy Americans. That could provide real cash while bolstering Democrats’ message that they’re fighting for the middle class.
Another possibility is raising the 18.4 cents per gallon federal gasoline tax, last boosted in the 1990s, by up to 1 percent annually. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., likely next chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, proposed that last year.
As for the billions Trump wants to pay for his proposed wall with Mexico, Pelosi, an ardent foe of the structure, calls that “a manhood issue” for Trump that doesn’t interest her.
IMPEACHMENT? NYET, FOR NOW
Many hard-left Democrats are itching for an impeachment showdown. Party leaders worry that without a bombshell from special counsel Robert Mueller about Russia’s role in Trump’s campaign, an impeachment drive would alienate moderates and independents.
But House probes of the Russia connection remains fair game.
California Rep. Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, wants to learn if Russians used laundered money for transactions with the Trump Organization, which runs the president’s businesses. He also wants more information about communications the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., had with his father and others about a June 2016 meeting between Trump campaign officials and a Russian lawyer.
The judiciary committee could try moving legislation protecting Mueller. Trump has repeatedly criticized the special counsel as running a “witch hunt.”
FOR INVESTIGATIONS, A TARGET-RICH ENVIRONMENT
Obtaining Trump’s tax returns, and their untold detail on his business entanglements and tax strategies, has been a top Democratic priority.
Congress’ tax-writing committees can by law obtain records from the IRS. Trump, who’s refused to release them, might not comply, sparking a court fight and letting Republicans argue that Democrats are going after their political opponents’ tax records.
Other areas Democrats could aggressively pursue include:
—Whether Trump violated the Constitution’s ban on presidents accepting gifts from foreign governments;
—The administration’s decision not to oppose efforts by 20 GOP state attorneys general to invalidate the health care law;
—Trump’s separation of migrant children from their parents;
—The FBI investigation of sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation fight, and whether the White House curtailed it;
—Forcing pharmaceutical executives to testify on drug prices.
—Investigating Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke over a Montana land deal and a rejected Connecticut casino project.