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The Democrats’ Dilemma: Work With Trump Or Obstruct

"Senate Democrats are the last wall between the radical Trump agenda and the American people. And I expect [Schumer] will do his best to block the radical agenda," said a former Schumer aide.

Posted on November 9, 2016, at 6:05 p.m. ET

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Heading into Election Day, Sen. Chuck Schumer was hailed as a bridge-builder capable of pushing through top Democratic priorities with Republican support.

But soon after the results were in, it was clear Schumer — the likely successor to retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid — wouldn’t be cutting many deals in the next Congress.

With the Senate map and political climate looking favorable for Democrats for months, Schumer had been working alongside Senate Democrats' campaign arm to ensure his position as Senate majority leader. But because of Democrats' failure in retaking the Senate and the White House Tuesday night, Schumer, the hard-charging New Yorker, is now in a much different position.

Although Democrats say the lines of communication are open with Trump — both Schumer and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said they spoke with him by phone Wednesday — Democrats have indicated that charting the path forward might involve Schumer playing the role of an obstructionist. That role would be similar to the one current Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has been playing — rather than that of a compromiser, especially if proposals such as building a wall on the Southern border are on the table instead of issues like infrastructure spending or paid maternity leave, where in theory, there could be some sort of bipartisan agreement.

Describing Schumer as "the most critical Democrat in Washington," Rep. John Yarmuth said: "We’re going to be looking to him to head off any extreme policies."

In a radio interview, retiring Democratic Rep. Steve Israel stressed that Democrats will have to use every procedural maneuver at their disposal to block Trump, mentioning the 60-vote threshold needed in Senate to pass anything. “Thankfully — I never thought I’d live to say this — the filibuster is going to stop some extremely bad things from happening. We’re going to have to use those tools.”

Jim Manley, former top adviser to Reid, said Schumer will be dealing with two dynamics: being the face of obstruction and also dealing with emboldened progressives in his own caucus. "Despite the optimism expressed by Trump and Hillary Clinton, when the rubber hits the road, Senate Democrats are going to have to serve as the force of opposition."

Following the GOP sweep of Washington, Schumer's office referred BuzzFeed News to his statement on the election results when asked about this strategy in working with Republicans.

“This was a divisive and hard fought election, and the outcome surprised many Americans from both political parties," Schumer said in the statement. "It is time for the country to come together and heal the bitter wounds from the campaign. Senate Democrats will spend the coming days and weeks reflecting on these results, hearing from the American people, and charting a path forward to achieve our shared goals and to defend our values.”

It's starting to sink in for Congressional Democrats: Donald Trump will be president of the United States, and the Republican Party will control both chambers of Congress.

But they still have no idea how they got here and how they will move on: Obstruct the GOP agenda or be open to cutting deals with Republicans on certain issues. Sleep-deprived Democratic strategists and members of Congress and their aides all woke up Wednesday in a daze, grasping to deal with reality.

“There’s mourning, there’s head-scratching … there’s a lot of second-guessing,” said Yarmuth. "He may end up being the most bipartisan president in modern history. We just don’t know yet.”

But one thing Democrats know for certain is that the Democratic leader in the Senate will set the tone for their strategy in dealing with Trump. Those close to Schumer say he will still run for that position. Despite the chaotic results of the election, no other challenger has emerged.

Manley also said progressive such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are going to go on the offense with anti-establishment climate continuing to hold. "They're going to use whatever tools they have available to push an alternative agenda."

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a close Schumer ally, downplayed how the divisions within the Democratic party might play in Schumer’s leadership. "First of all, our caucus is very united — much more so than what we see on the Republican side,” Stabenow said. “We have different ideas on policy, but I think that’s what brings energy to our caucus."

Democrats released several statements on unifying as a country and working together when they can. “I stand ready to work cooperatively with President-Elect Trump on shared goals and values and will be equally vigilant in opposing him where our values diverge,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s statement said.

But the extent to which Schumer and other Democrats will work with Trump and Senate Republicans is still uncertain. Some moderate Democrats from red states who are up for re-election in 2018 might need legislative accomplishments to run on if the Democrats want a shot at the majority.

Jim Kessler, who worked for Schumer for eight years and now serves as co-founder of think tank Third Way, said he hasn't spoken to the senator or his staff, but he expects there won't be too much of a push for compromising with Republicans within the Democratic caucus.

"I think first of all, he's going to take the temperature of his caucus," he said. "And number two, I think his inclination will be to use his power to have the Senate serve as the cooling saucer that the Founding Fathers intended it to be."

"Senate Democrats are the last wall between the radical Trump agenda and the American people. And I expect he will do his best to block the radical agenda."

In his new role, Schumer would have to work with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has already said Republicans will waste no time in repealing the Affordable Care Act, in order to cut any deals.

Schumer doesn’t have much of a relationship with McConnell. He angered the Kentucky Republican in 2008, when McConnell was up for re-election and Schumer was leading Senate Democrats’ campaign arm. Democrats hit McConnell on the Wall Street bailout, a bipartisan package that McConnell thought was off-limits. Schumer argued that it was aired by an independent committee he did not control.

“There’s not a ton of relationship there yet, but they both view each other as pragmatic dealmaker types,” said a source familiar with their interactions.

A senior GOP aide said that McConnell isn’t going to let what happened in 2008 get in the way of working with Schumer when needed. “He separates out personal feelings and emotions from legislative accomplishments. McConnell's relationship with senators is professional. He doesn’t go out drinking with them or playing golf with them.”

The aide said that Republicans are curious to see what kind of a Democratic leader Schumer would be: “Does he want to restore the Senate and let it function? He has to choose between the way Reid did it or the way we used to do things around here.”

Nathaniel Meyersohn contributed to this report.

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