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What can get done in a divided Washington

While there will almost certainly be some focus on oversight of the executive branch, a House Democratic leadership aide called it “false choice” to say that would take the place of any work on legislation.

Liberal activists may be shouting for impeachment hearings and oversight investigations when Democrats assume control of the House in January, but party leaders would rather talk about infrastructure, drug prices and immigration.

With their newly minted House majority, Democrats will quickly have to strike a balance between their base’s desire to seek revenge on President Donald Trump and their electoral mandate to actually get something done. That means talking about wonky things like trade and taxes — and yes, on some issues they may even have some common ground with a president so hated by the left.

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Once their election high wears off, Democrats will have to find policy victories where they can get them — while also avoiding two years of pure obstruction that could risk alienating swing voters ahead of the 2020 presidential election. There’s a risk that Trump will pursue his agenda through executive fiat, and Democrats will want to have their say on a few policy areas where they agree with the president.

“These are voters that have observed that the Republican party has gone completely overboard, and they’re hoping that the alternative was to give Democrats a check on that,” said John Michael Gonzalez, a Democratic strategist with Peck Madigan Jones and former House aide. “The Democrats can’t — we can’t do what the Republicans did, or we will lose those voters again.”

There will almost certainly be some focus on oversight of the executive branch. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who is expected to take over the speaker’s gavel next year, alluded to as much in a victory speech Tuesday night when she said the day’s elections were “more than about Democrats and Republicans. It’s about restoring the Constitution’s checks and balances to the Trump administration.”

Still, a House Democratic leadership aide called it a “false choice” to say that would take the place of any work on legislation. “It’ll be both,” the aide said. “We can walk and chew gum at the same time.”

Democrats eked out a narrow majority in the House Tuesday night while Republicans widened their majority in the Senate, giving the party some new power but little ability to do much on their own. But Trump could see an incentive to work with Democrats on policy in an attempt to try to head off a flurry of oversight investigations, said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic strategist.

“When any legislative body can’t do the things it thought it could do, it finds other things to do,” he said. “Which means the only way the president will stop the investigations is to allow legislation to come out.”

With the Capitol divided, the Trump administration is expected to focus on forging an infrastructure deal with Congress and potentially working to rein in drug prices — two policy areas typically more aligned with liberals, according to interviews with six current and former administration officials and Republicans close to the White House.

“If there is anything bipartisan, it’s lowering drug prices,” Trump said at a White House bill-signing ceremony last month.

Expectations that the two sides could work out a major deal on something like negotiating drug prices in Medicare are low — but there is hope in both parties that impactful incremental reforms, like increasing transparency around drugmakers’ relationships with pharmacy benefit managers to ensure there is no collusion to keep prices high, could get bipartisan support.

And Democrats won’t give up without a fight on bold moves like government negotiation of drug prices, which Trump supported on the campaign trail in 2016. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosimet with PhRMA execs this summer and “took the opportunity to deliver a message about the seriousness of Democrats’ commitment to legislative action to bring down soaring prescription drug prices,” her spokesperson Henry Connelly said.

She also outlined some of her own ideas, like installing a Senate-confirmed “price-gouging enforcer” who could fine companies found to have increased prices unjustifiably.

Also high on the priority list is infrastructure, which Trump has long talked about and which some of his former top aides even advocated for him to tackle as his first major push after the inauguration. But congressional leaders and a handful of Trump transition officials instead nudged him to try to repeal Obamacare — an ultimately unsuccessful endeavor that consumed the first seven months of his presidency and initially burned through some political capital.

“I know the administration wants to move on infrastructure regardless of who takes the House,” said one former senior administration official.

Pursuing an infrastructure package means wildly different things depending on one’s political ideology — and the White House and congressional leaders still have to come up with a basic agreement as to the parameters of a package.

“The problem is that the Democrats and Republicans are just talking past each other on infrastructure,” said Stephen Moore, a distinguished visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation and informal economic adviser to the 2016 Trump campaign. “Democrats want more of a public works project, while Republicans want more investment from the private sector.”

Trump has also already proposed a $ 1.5 trillion package of spending that Congress has largely ignored, in part because it proposes it be funded by cutting existing programs and otherwise shifting funding burdens onto states.

Perhaps more likely than a full-fledged package is that the White House and Congress could continue to work together on less ambitious streamlining projects and pass recurring bills like a recently enacted FAA law — and still claim rhetorical credit for bipartisan infrastructure wins.

On trade, the renegotiated NAFTA — now called the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement — is expected to come up for a vote in Congress in early 2019, and the White House will be looking to woo some Democrats to vote with Republicans in order to get it approved.

Doing so may be easier than it has been in the past for previous trade votes, given that the updated agreement includes provisions to raise wages in Mexico and boost manufacturing in the U.S. that should help Democrats champion the pact.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who led the negotiations, kept in close touch with labor groups throughout the negotiations and appears optimistic the final deal will win their support — and by extension, that of their Democratic allies.

Nancy Pelosi

Where he can’t get Congress to cooperate, Trump is expected to pursue some policy projects through executive orders and actions.

The National Economic Council, for instance, has been pursuing a number of energy projects for months, which the White House sees as the next frontier of its economic agenda and some of which it could do unilaterally. The White House by itself could try to make permitting easier and seek to open up more LNG pipelines. It also wants to export more oil and natural gas produced in the U.S. and pursue more energy policy by loosening regulations.

In addition to viewing it as a policy area ripe for more work, aides also view energy as a potential winner politically. The building of pipelines, for instance, would involve union workers and a good jobs — a carrot for some Democratic politicians.

Immigration also falls on the list of issues where Trump feels he could take some action alone. White House aides viewed Trump’s heated rhetoric and improbable policy proposals in his closing pitch to voters — including his insistence that he could end birthright citizenship via executive order — as a preview of what he plans to do on immigration without a Republican-controlled House.

“The president wants to do everything within his legal constitutional authority to protect the American people and if Congress won’t come to the table, he’s going to look at every option possible to make sure American communities are safe,” said a senior White House official.

Declining to provide details, the same official said there are executive actions to come that will allow Trump to claim progress on fixing the broken immigration system, and to tell supporters heading into 2020 he did so without Democrats’ help. Trump has already promised to use his pen to restrict asylum claims for migrants who are caught crossing into the U.S. illegally, though the White House has yet to release the text of the order, which Trump first described in a televised address last week.

Taking executive action that affects thousands of immigrants wouldn’t be a first for this president. Last fall, Trump announced that his administration would be winding down the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that shielded undocumented youth from deportation. Multiple federal judges issued injunctions against Trump’s decision to end the program, which was partially resurrected earlier this year.

The unsolved problem of what to do with the thousands of DACA recipients is something that could be approached again once the new Congress convenes, as the White House and congressional Republicans repeatedly failed to notch a deal that would have allowed so-called Dreamers to remain in the country permanently and without fear of reprisal.

It’s unlikely, however, that Trump would lend his support to immigration legislation that omits funding for a border wall or stricter enforcement measures.

“I don’t see a way the Democrats would be able to pass anything containing concessions to the president that aren’t completely fictitious border-related things,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for more restrictive immigration laws.

The White House has, for its part, maintained a realistic outlook on how much it will be able to do with Democrats at the helm in one chamber of Congress. A senior administration official told POLITICO recently that no one has “a Pollyanna view of the world, that we’re all going to come together and do big things.” But the hope in the West Wing is that Democrats feel “it’s also in their best interests to look functional.”

“I do think they’re going to pick their spots where they want to work together,” the official said, “and they’re going to pick their spots where they don’t.”

Sarah Karlin-Smith contributed to this report.

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