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Liberals To Senate Democrats: (Don't) Do Your Jobs

Monday's rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., overflowed the sidewalk and filled the street.
Claire Harbage
Monday's rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., overflowed the sidewalk and filled the street.

When House and Senate Democrats held a rally Monday night to oppose President Trump's executive order on refugees and immigrants, the crowd wasn't all on their side.

Pockets of, "Do your job!" jeers broke out, as did chants of "Walk the walk."

A vocal wing of Democrats' progressive base is growing increasingly frustrated that the minority party can't seem to do much to stop Trump's agenda. In fact, several progressive activists view the bipartisan votes for Trump Cabinet picks, like Defense Secretary James Mattis, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, as signs that many Democrats are failing to put up a fight.

That's despite contentious confirmation hearings and the Trump White House complaining that it's not getting its nominees through faster. Democrats are hamstrung when it comes to stopping the Cabinet picks. Aside from procedural delays, the elimination of the filibuster (the 60-vote threshold to advance nominees) has meant Democrats are powerless to fully stop Trump's picks unless multiple Republicans oppose them, too.

No Democrat appears immune to the criticism

Even Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren found herself writing a defensive Facebook post after being criticized for voting for Ben Carson's Housing and Urban Development nomination in committee.

And despite taking the unprecedented step of testifying against the fellow senator's nomination in committee, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker has found himself answering Twitter critics demanding to know whether he'll stand up to Sen. Jeff Sessions' nomination as attorney general.

Protesters disrupted an event organized by Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse this weekend, and on Tuesday night, a rally titled "What The F***, Chuck" was scheduled for outside Minority Leader Chuck Schumer's Brooklyn home.

A liberal Tea Party?

In nearly every Senate office, phones are ringing off the hook with pleas to vote no — or do more to try to block Trump's picks.

Democrats argue that the bulk of Trump's Cabinet picks are being delayed, and that less controversial nominations, like Mattis', are being treated much differently than lightning-rod Trump picks, like Rep. Tom Price for Health and Human Services secretary or Steve Mnuchin for Treasury.

But that appears to be falling on deaf ears.

A lot of the outreach has been prompted by the Indivisible Guide, an organizing project launched by former Democratic congressional staffers that is aimed at mimicking the successful Tea Party movement, but on the Democratic side.

In the wake of Trump's executive action on immigration and refugees, Indivisible organizers put together a conference call, urging people to ask their senators to do everything they can to walk back Trump's order.

"One thing we want to make clear is, if you've got what you think is just a good, progressive senator, and they've made a nice statement saying they don't support the ban, that's not enough," Indivisible co-founder Ezra Levin told the call. "And they can do much more. There are Senate procedural tools available to them that if they chose to implement them, they could slow down the Senate, or even stop all action in the Senate, which will go a long way to actually ending this ban."

Feeling the pressure

The fact is, many Democrats are appalled at the idea of grinding the government to a halt. Talking about the party's tactics Tuesday, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown made sure to clarify that "there's not a plan to slow-walk or slow things down the way that Mitch McConnell did on darn-near everything" when McConnell was the Republican minority leader.

Still, as base pressure has ramped up, Senate Democrats appear to be changing their tactics. Schumer made waves in the decorum-soaked Senate on Tuesday by voting against Elaine Chao's nomination as transportation secretary. In addition to being a member of multiple previous Republican administrations, she's also married to McConnell.

And Tuesday morning, Brown and other Democrats on the Finance Committee boycotted a meeting, in order to deny a quorum call and block votes for Price and Mnuchin.

That's not a permanent fix for Democrats. The committee will eventually meet, and the two nominees will likely be confirmed.

But unlike Trump's Cabinet, Democrats still do have filibuster power when it comes to Neil Gorsuch, the president's pick for the Supreme Court.

"Make no mistake, Senate Democrats will not simply allow but require an exhaustive, robust, and comprehensive debate on Judge Gorsuch's fitness to be a Supreme Court Justice," Schumer said Tuesday night in a statement.

The real test of whether Democrats are listening to these calls for more hard-line stances? Whether and when the caucus allows for an actual vote on the court nominee.

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Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.