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House Democrats Debate How Aggressive To Be When They Take Over


When Democrats take control of the House of Representatives in January, they will have new authority to conduct oversight of the Trump administration. They'll be able to issue subpoenas, hold hearings and demand documents. They could even open impeachment proceedings. This responsibility and disagreements over how to handle it have exposed tensions within the Democratic Party about how aggressive they should be. NPR's Tim Mak has more.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: In her first press conference following their victory in the midterm elections, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi stressed the importance of working with Republicans.


NANCY PELOSI: We will strive for bipartisanship. We believe that we have a responsibility to seek common ground where we can.

MAK: But not every Democrat has embraced that sentiment. Two of the leading voices in the Democratic caucus who will be working on oversight issues have diverging views, illustrating the difference between a more confrontational approach and a more cooperative one. Congressman Jerry Nadler, the expected incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is already dangling out the possibility of a subpoena to compel testimony by acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker.


JERRY NADLER: One of the first orders of business will be to invite him and, if necessary, to subpoena him to appear before the committee.

MAK: Contrast that with Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings, who is expected to lead the House Oversight Committee next year. Here's what he told NPR.

ELIJAH CUMMINGS: I will not be issuing a subpoena like somebody distributing Halloween candy. I'm going to do it in a way that is very methodical and in the public interest. And it will be a method of last resort.

MAK: With some Democratic leaders preaching patience, progressive portions of the Democratic base are hungry for a more aggressive approach. Here's Kevin Mack, the lead strategist for the progressive organization Need to Impeach, started by billionaire Tom Steyer. As the name suggests, they don't just want investigations and subpoenas. They want impeachment proceedings, starting yesterday.

KEVIN MACK: Bipartisanship always sounds amazing, but the reality is that it never really works for Democrats. And that's because Republicans just roll over us.

MAK: Cummings said that he's not only interested in holding the Trump administration accountable. He says his committee will be laser-focused on hearings and investigations into issues like prescription drug pricing, the opioid crisis, coverage of pre-existing conditions and infrastructure.

CUMMINGS: I think we have to reclaim civility.

MAK: While progressive activists are behind those efforts, policy hearings are not going to be enough to satiate the grass roots of a party which demands first and foremost a check on a White House that has scandalized them.

MAX BERGMANN: Democrats are going to have to do both. They're going to have to walk and chew gum at the same time.

MAK: That's Max Bergmann. He's the director of the Moscow Project at the Center for American Progress, dedicated to investigating possible Trump-Russia ties.

BERGMANN: This is one of the most corrupt administrations that we've ever seen.

MAK: Kurt Bardella is a former senior adviser to Republican Congressman Darrell Issa, who in 2010 was in a similar position to Cummings. Issa was swept from the minority into the majority by the Tea Party wave and immediately ratcheted up hopes for the GOP base.

KURT BARDELLA: We did a terrible job of managing expectations. I remember just a day or two after the election in 2010, Issa had done an interview where he said that he wanted to have seven hearings a week times 40 weeks a year. That would've been 280 hearings. That is impossible to do, by the way. And we spent so much time trying to live up to that expectation that at times we were more concerned with almost volume than quality.

MAK: As members of Congress enter the holiday season, this will be the most prominent question for Democrats, how to balance the demands of aggressive probes with hearings on key policy issues and how and whether to temper expectations from the base. Tim Mak, NPR News, Washington.


Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.