By Alexander Bolton - 11-30-16 06:00 AM EST
Senate Democrats facing tough reelection races in states won overwhelmingly by Donald Trump are wrestling with how to vote on his Cabinet picks.
Democrats have directed heavy fire at several of the president-elect's proposed nominees, criticizing the choice of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) for attorney general, Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) for health secretary and Betsy DeVos for education secretary.
Incoming Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) has pledged a "very thorough and tough vetting" of Sessions and claimed Tuesday that Price might not make it through the Senate because of his views on privatizing Medicare.
But to have any chance of blocking Trump's nominees, Democratic leaders would need to keep their caucus unified - and there are early signs that some members won't be willing to hold the line.
Red-state Democrats running in 2018 aren't closing the door on supporting Trump's picks. They're avoiding critical statements that could box them in when the nominations come to the floor for votes next year.
"I've always been inclined to try to be receptive to anybody and everybody that the executive puts up as they put their team together," said Sen. Joe Manchin (D), who's up for reelection in West Virginia, a state Trump carried with almost 69 percent of the vote.
Manchin has already announced his support for Sessions - whom other Democrats have balked at because of decades-old allegations that he made racist comments - and pledged to keep an open mind on other nominees.
"They'll be coming to my office and I'll ask the questions that are important to me, but I haven't formed an opinion on them. I've been receptive," Manchin said.
Sen. Jon Tester, who is stepping down as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to run for reelection in Montana, where Trump won with 57 percent of the vote, says he wants to give the Cabinet picks a chance.
"I could read a lot about stuff that would give me heartburn, but we're going to bring them in, we're going to visit with them and give them an honest shake," he said.
Schumer on Tuesday trained his fire on Price, who authored a plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act and has championed Medicare reforms that Democrats call privatization.
"There are a whole number of Republicans who are not going to be for privatizing Medicare, and there ought to be bipartisan support against a secretary [who] was going to privatize Medicare and not fund Planned Parenthood," Schumer told reporters.
Schumer says he will not vote for Sessions to be attorney general unless he is convinced that he would establish a strong civil rights division at the Justice Department.
But vulnerable Democrats aren't marching to the fight in lockstep with their leadership.
When asked about Price, Tester said, "I know who he is, but I don't know what he is, so I've got to sit down" with him.
Tester said he knows Sessions but not well enough to be familiar with his lengthy record as a senator, former state attorney general and former U.S. attorney.
When asked about DeVos, a major GOP donor and champion of school vouchers who has drawn early opposition from teachers unions, Tester expressed some reservation but said he's persuadable.
"I'm a former teacher, school board member. I think it's important to have someone who's really familiar with the classroom like a teacher, but I'll give her her due," he said. "We'll give everybody a fair shake."
Schumer on Tuesday accused Republicans of "plotting a war on seniors next year," citing Price's selection.
But Democrats running for reelection in states that Trump won say they're going to make up their own minds on the subject.
Florida Sen. Bill Nelson (D), who called himself Mr. Senior Citizen during the Senate's ObamaCare debate, said he's not making a judgment on Price just yet.
"I don't know him," he said. "I'm going to wait until the hearings."
Nelson is up for reelection in Florida, a state Trump won narrowly.
Still, some of the Democrats up for reelection in 2018 appear eager for a fight over at least some of the Cabinet appointments.
Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) was out of the gate quickly on Tuesday announcing his opposition to Price.
"Tom Price has led the charge to privatize Medicare, and for this reason, I cannot support his nomination," Donnelly said in a statement. "[T]he nomination of Tom Price would put us on a direct path to end Medicare as we know it."
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D), who is running next cycle in Ohio, which Trump carried by nearly 10 points, said Price is a nonstarter.
"I cannot imagine supporting a candidate for one of the most important jobs in the government who has advocated for Medicare privatization and for total repeal of the Affordable Care Act," he said.
But Brown has also signaled he wants to support some of Trump's picks, telling an Ohio radio station last week that he would vote for Mitt Romney to serve as secretary of State, if he were nominated.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), another Democrat up for reelection next cycle, noted that Democrats can't complain too much about Trump's likely nominees because they changed the rules in 2013 to allow executive branch picks to be confirmed with a simple majorities instead of 60 votes.
"All of us are looking at every nominee and I think looking to do a lot of thinking but at the end of the day, we're the ones that changed the rules to allow a president to get a Cabinet with 51 votes," she said. "Other than pointing out flaws, it will be very difficult to defeat any of them."
McCaskill, who survived an election scare in 2012, said she's not going to take early positions on any of Trump's personnel choices until he names all of his Cabinet selections.
She warned, however, that she would certainly vote against Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, whose name has been floated to serve as secretary of Homeland Security.
"I'm familiar with his background. Most of the immigration laws that have been struck down by courts were written by him," she said.
Trump won Missouri with 57 percent of the vote.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D), who is up for reelection in North Dakota, says she will withhold judgment until she has a chance to meet with the nominees and review their records.
"I like to give people a chance to actually come in and visit with me," she said.
But like Tester, she said DeVos's selection raises a red flag.
"I'm really concerned on education on whether there's a commitment to public education," she said. "I'm the product of a public school education and I think it's a cornerstone piece that has made America great."
Democrats from traditionally blue states have been much more vocal in their criticism of Trump's Cabinet picks.
"I think there are a lot of concerns, a lot of concerns," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.).