Rep. Elijah E. Cummings pledged Thursday to "use whatever time I have here on this earth to fight back" against the threats he sees to U.S. democracy, as President Donald J. Trump called for an investigation of voting practices and signed executive orders to change course on trade, immigration and the environment.
At the same time, the Baltimore Democrat said he is "looking forward" to meeting with Trump to discuss ways to reduce the cost of prescription drugs.
The two approaches illustrated the challenge confronting Democrats as they struggle to respond to the barrage of changes the Republican administration is putting in motion.
Liberal activists are pressuring congressional Democrats to oppose Trump on virtually everything — an approach they say ultimately proved successful for Republicans against President Barack Obama. Senate Democrats who have voted for Trump's Cabinet nominees have drawn criticism from some in the party's base.
Cummings said the party is still trying to figure out a broader strategy. Several officials, Cummings included, have urged the public to pressure politicians by showing up at local meetings.
"We are pulling it together," he said. "I don't know that … a lot of people even knew that the president would move this fast."
In his first week, Trump has moved to restart the Keystone XL Pipeline, a crude oil pipeline running 1,100 miles from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico; signed an order to strip federal funding from local jurisdictions that don't cooperate with federal immigration agents; signed a notice to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal; and ordered a federal hiring freeze for nonmilitary personnel.
Given that pace, Goucher College political science professor Mileah Kromer said, it's not a surprise that Democrats are struggling to get their bearings.
"I think it's a very, very difficult balancing act," she said. "We'll see over the next two weeks what position they'll end up taking — whether they'll take a hard line or a more conciliatory line."
Democrats themselves have been unable to reach a consensus. They were split over whether to attend Trump's inauguration last week — more than 60, including freshman Reps. Anthony Brown and Jamie Raskin of Maryland, skipped the event — and have been divided over Trump's nominees.
Dan Holler, a vice president at the conservative Heritage Action for America, said congressional Democrats are still trying to understand the "new political reality."
"If they simply treat President Trump as a political anomaly and obstruct at every turn, they risk being on the wrong side of a political realignment," he said. "That would cause long-term damage to the party and further isolate them from voters deeply and rightly frustrated with Washington."
Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has positioned himself as a national voice of the opposition, speaking out against what he has described as a "struggle for the soul of our democracy."
Speaking to reporters in his Baltimore office Thursday, he emphasized his concern about Trump's call for an investigation of alleged voter fraud in the election, in which Trump lost the popular vote to Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
He contrasted Trump's assertion that millions of people voted illegally in November — a claim for which there is no evidence — with changes to North Carolina's election laws federal judges ruled last year targeted the voting rights of African-Americans.
"That's a road we don't want to go down," Cummings said. "So what I have decided to do is to use whatever time I have here on this earth to fight back."
He also sent a letter Thursday to the White House, saying that administration memos aimed at clamping down on communication from federal workers to members of Congress are illegal. He has urged federal workers to call him with their concerns.
White House officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Cummings said Trump called him Wednesday to extend an invitation to meet.
Cummings said the invitation followed an inauguration day conversation with Trump about drug prices. Cummings also said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" — known to be a favorite of the new president — that he wanted to meet.
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The two spoke briefly and cordially, Cummings said. The meeting hasn't been scheduled yet.
Despite his disagreements, Cummings said, there's no reason not to try to work with Trump in areas where they can find agreement.
"I have a duty to work with this president," he said. "He is going to be my president and your president for the next four years at least. So if there are things that I can achieve in that space I want to do it. … I have to get what I can."
Cummings said he believes inaction in Washington fueled the voter frustration that led to success of outsider candidates like Trump and Bernie Sanders.
Del. Joe Cluster, a former executive director of the Maryland Republican Party, advised Democrats to pick their battles. He said blanket opposition could backfire.
"I think the worst thing to do is to attack just to attack," he said. "If you continue to attack on every single issue, people are not going to listen to you."