Congress begins to maneuver in preparation for President Trump

WASHINGTON — Days after Republican Donald Trump won the tempestuous presidential election, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings fired off a letter seeking an investigation into the New Yorker's financial empire, criticizing his "unprecedented secrecy" and foreign business dealings.

By Friday, the Baltimore Democrat had sought at least three more probes of the president-elect.


For Rep. Andy Harris, the only Republican in Maryland's delegation, the recent political turmoil may open up opportunities. Pressed on whether he would consider a job in Trump's administration, the Hopkins-trained anesthesiologist hedged before acknowledging that he had given the idea some thought.

"The issue's been broached," Harris said as the doors of his elevator in a House office building narrowed and shut.


Democrats and Republicans in Maryland and across the country are beginning to adjust to an incoming president who ran on a promise to upend Washington politics and reverse President Barack Obama's agenda. The campaign was the most polarizing in generations, and Trump's rhetoric troubled lawmakers in both parties just as much as it fired up supporters hungry for change.

Even as Democrats offered early and vocal opposition to Trump — sniping at the businessman in an effort to gin up the base — others sounded a more conciliatory tone and left open the possibility of finding compromise on issues like trade and infrastructure.

For Maryland, a state that voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton and elected Democrats to nine of 10 seats in a Republican-controlled Congress, Trump's election has already prompted a realignment of roles.

What happens next to the political landscape in Washington "depends on what the president-elect does," American University government professor James Thurber said.


While Trump vowed to dismantle Obama's signature achievements, he also has moderated some of his own campaign pledges — suggesting his "wall" on the southern U.S. border with Mexico may actually be a "fence" in some places, and offering to retain the "popular" provisions of Obama's health care law.

"If he really tries to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, then there will be continued confrontation and polarization," Thurber said. "But I think that there's a possibility of finding some common ground."

As Trump spent the past week sequestered in his New York office, Democrats on Capitol Hill fired off news releases attacking his initial appointments.

Steve Bannon, named a chief strategist, drew accusations of anti-Semitism and misogyny for headlines published on his website, Breitbart News. Democrats also attacked Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, whom Trump intends to nominate for attorney general, for racially charged comments he made decades ago.

"There can be no justification for confirming any nominee, for any position, who has made disparaging remarks about minorities and immigrants," said Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer of Southern Maryland.

None of the criticism prompted Trump to reverse his decisions, and Democrats in Congress will have little ability to stand in the way. Trump will need only a simple majority to win confirmation for his nominees in the Senate because of a rules maneuver made by Democrats in 2013 — when they held the majority — that limited filibusters.

While Republicans retained majorities in both chambers of Congress, Democrats still face a changed Washington.

Sen. Ben Cardin, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has for years generally tied his foreign policy to the White House. Now, Cardin has more freedom to articulate his own ideas.

Days after Trump's election, Cardin announced legislation to impose new sanctions on Russia at a time when Trump has hinted at resetting relations with that country. Obama has said the U.S. should respond to allegations that the Kremlin was involved in hacking the Democratic Party, but it is not clear whether he will do so before leaving office in January.

"I've had to spend a good deal of time and resources explaining and seeking the administration's views on many matters. I don't have to do that any more," Cardin said. "It frees me up from having to make sure that the administration is properly represented."

Cardin added that he would nevertheless seek to keep lines of communication open with the White House.

His incoming colleague, Sen.-elect Chris Van Hollen, will have a heavily partisan role as the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

The group, which works to elect Democrats to the Senate, will spend the next two years criticizing Trump in an effort to sway voters in red states like Indiana and Missouri ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.

For Harris, Maryland's only Republican in Congress, the plan for next year was supposed to be clear. The Baltimore County man was expected to win the Republican Study Committee chairmanship — a position that would have allowed him to lead an influential group of conservatives and set the message for House Republicans.

But Harris lost the internal election Thursday to Rep. Mark Walker, a freshman from North Carolina.

Harris said winning the chairmanship would have "made it less likely that I would accept a position, if I was offered one, in the administration." He acknowledged the opposite also was true: that losing the post might make it more likely he'd jump to Trump if a job is put on the table.

Harris has stepped up in recent years in helping House Republicans craft health policy.

It is conservative Republicans like Harris, members of the House Freedom Caucus, who will be key to whether Congress breaks out of the gridlock that defined Obama's presidency. If they align with House Speaker Paul Ryan and other leaders, then that could give Trump more leverage to advance a legislative agenda.

Cummings' title hasn't changed — he is still the top-ranking Democrat on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee — but his role is now different. For years he worked as the Obama administration's top defense attorney in the House. Now, he will be something more akin to a prosecutor.

"I look at the standard that was set by Republicans and how they looked at Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama," Cummings said when asked how he would approach his job on the oversight committee next year. "I'm asking us to use the same standard."

When Republicans selected Rep. Darrell Issa to chair the committee in 2010, the California lawmaker vowed to vastly expand investigations. Issa once described Obama as "one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times," a statement he later walked back, and the committee held dozens of hearings on whether the IRS was targeting conservative groups and on the Fast and Furious "gun walking" scandal in which federal agents put weapons in the hands of drug cartels.

Cummings will have far less power to initiate such probes of Trump from the minority party.

As he spoke between votes taking place on the House floor last week, Cummings was quick to offer an olive branch to the new administration.


"I don't want people to view it as attacking," he said. "I want him to be successful with regard to things like infrastructure and preserving Social Security and Medicare."


Philip Wallach, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, sees several potential outcomes. One is that the oversight committee spends the next several years re-litigating investigations of Clinton. Another possibility is that Congress proposes and passes substantive policies, reasserting its more traditional role.

In that circumstance, the committee could play a less partisan role.

"I do think there are signs that Congress is feeling its oats a little bit — starting to feel a little resentful about the ways that it has become a marginal actor," Wallach said. "There are a number of members who would like to reverse that trend."

Trump is most likely to meet resistance from Democrats over his appointments as well as proposals to dismantle the Affordable Care Act — Obama's most controversial domestic achievement.

Republicans will likely be able to unwind much of the health care law with simple majorities, rather than clearing the 60-vote threshold in the Senate required for other measures.

Democrats have expressed an eagerness to work with Trump on issues like infrastructure and trade, areas where Trump was more aligned with them during the campaign than his own party. Advancing those issues has the potential to drive a wedge between Republicans in Congress and the party's leader in the White House.

Even House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has indicated that infrastructure is an area where Democrats could work with Trump.

"There's the potential to find common ground on the proposals," said Rep. John Delaney, a Western Maryland Democrat who has proposed funding an infrastructure bank by allowing companies to repatriate overseas holdings at a lower tax rate. "Democrats are prepared to work with the new administration on issues that have been priorities for us historically."