Senate Democrats, trying mightily to win back the white working class voters who backed President Donald Trump are making a strong push for strong protections for blue collar workers’ shaky pensions.
Congress has until Jan. 19 to pass a bill to fund most of the federal government, and Democrats are eagerly trying to load it up with proposals that will lure the voters who left the party in 2016.
They badly need those voters, since 23 Democrats and two independents are up for re-election this year — including several with large union populations — while just eight Republican seats are being contested.
The Democrats’ pension plan is expected to have a difficult, if not impossible, road to passage in the GOP-run Congress. But Democrats are banking on their initiative to provide a valuable debate point on the campaign trail.
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On the Senate’s first day of 2018, Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer offered what could well be the opening line of his colleagues’ campaign speech.
“2017 was a great year for wealthy Republican donors, but a lost year for the middle class and the working men and women of this country,” Schumer, D-N.Y.,. said. “We Democrats hope that this year is different – focused on the middle class rather than the rich and powerful.”
Democrats are pressing Republicans to include in this month’s spending bill the Butch Lewis Act, named for the late teamster who led a fight to save his union’s pensions. Sponsored by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, the measure would direct the Treasury Department to loan money to faltering pension plans at low interest rates.
Brown said he was optimistic about the measure's success and that he's talked with several Republican senators whom he expects to support it.
"A number of them are saying that they will vote for it, but they haven't yet signed on," he said.
Asked whether Democrats will seize the issue in 2018, he said "People feel like Wall Street robbed them of their pensions and you will hear more about it.”
Brown and nine other Democrats face voters this year in states Trump won in 2016, including several with large union populations. Among the incumbents on the ballot are Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa., Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. Union membership is also influential in Nevada, where Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., is vulnerable.
The pension push could help restore the party’s “working man credentials” in areas where Democrats lost to Trump, said Steve Mitchell, chairman of a Michigan-based research and communications firm. Though union clout has been declining, it’s still potent.
“Trump did well among those those older voters, a lot of them retirees or older voters who will be dependent on a pension,” Mitchell said. “Something like this resonates.”
Union voters historically had been a reliable Democratic constituency in state and local elections. Trump’s stance on trade restrictions and other blue collar issues appealed to many white working class voters, said Susan Demers, publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, a nonpartisan website.
She noted there has been considerable discussions of “how to get those white, working class voters back” in areas such as Macomb County, a Detroit suburb well-known by political experts as a laboratory for how white working class voters are thinking. Obama carried the county twice; Trump won it by 12 percentage points.
“These are economic issues affecting people who feel like they’ve been left behind,” Demers said.
Democrats unsuccessfully pressed the pension case last month in the year-end spending bill and plan to push it hard again.
“People in my district who worked a lifetime put money into their pension. They`re retiring. Suddenly, the money is not there,” Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “We have got a moral responsibility to figure this out and work together.”
At the White House, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Trump wants a “clean” spending bill and she warned Democrats against adding provisions.
The president, she said, would urge Democrats to “not hold the government hostage in an attempt to advance a radical political agenda.”
Brown’s office said a number of Ohio pension plans are on the brink of collapse.
The conservative Heritage Foundation has panned his proposal as a bailout, warning it would “prop up reckless and declining unions and businesses while undermining and threatening the existence of more viable, responsible, and competitive ones.” It recommends instead reforming the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation to protect pensioners.
But Brown said that if the plans fail, taxpayers would be at risk of having to help prop up the PBGC.
The retirees “earned every dollar of their retirement, and out of no fault of their own, the money they earned is at risk,” Brown said last month at a press conference calling for the provision to be included in the spending bill. “They held up their end of the bargain and it’s time Congress held up ours and ensure they can keep what they’ve earned.”