By Jordain Carney - 01-18-17 06:00 AM EST
Democrats are bracing for the unknown as they barrel toward the formal start of the Trump era.
Friday marks the opening of the first unified GOP government in roughly a decade. It will also be the first time that almost two-dozen Democratic senators-about half the caucus-elected during Obama's tenure will serve under a Republican president.
The coming strategy for Democratic lawmakers boils down to a dual-pronged approach: Offering Donald Trump an olive branch on potential areas where they could work together, while trying to rally public support when they think the president-elect steps over the line.
"When they hear the outcry from the public ... they get a little nervous and sometimes back off," top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer said of the incoming Trump team on a Tuesday conference call.
Democrats' pledge to stand up to Trump was on full display Tuesday, as they blasted Health and Human Services nominee Rep. Tom Price and focused pointed questions on Education nominee Betsy DeVos at her evening confirmation hearing.
They're also gearing up for a battle over the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) saying firing Director Richard Cordray would be akin to Trump "kissing the boots" of payday lenders and big banks.
Democrats-in a strategy laid out by Schumer during his first speech as minority leader-are planning to try to leverage their limited power to keep Trump accountable to the populist promises he made during his campaign.
Republicans and the Trump administration will need the support of at least eight Democratic senators to get their ambitious legislative agenda through Congress.
But those lawmakers are heading into Friday's inauguration deeply uncertain of what to expect from the incoming administration, and how much influence they might have over the president elect.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) laughed when asked how willing he thinks Trump will be to work with Democrats.
"There's no sign he willing to work with Democrats right now. I mean his conduct has been juvenile since the election," he told The Hill.
While he said he's open to working with Trump on issues such as infrastructure, "the hope I had after the election has very quickly been dashed."
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) separately said he would "look for opportunities" to work with Trump.
But the former vice presidential candidate hedged, noting he couldn't predict what the administration would prioritize "out of the gate" and pointing to the GOP push to repeal ObamaCare as a "catastrophe."
Muddying the water for Democrats are Trump's Cabinet picks, many of whom have publicly differed from Trump on key policy proposals.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said his sit-downs with Trump's nominees have left him "puzzled" about what to expect from the incoming administration.
"I don't know. We just don't know," he said when asked if Trump's nominees are out of line with the president-elect.
"This man reinvented campaign politics ... and now he's sending his team in and there are so many unanswered questions."
Sen. Chris Coons, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, echoed Durbin after a meeting with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Trump's pick for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
The Delaware Democrat said it's "significant" that Trump's nominees are breaking with him on national security issues, including Russia and torture, but demurred on whether he thinks they might change Trump's positions.
"That's really up to the president, isn't it?" he said when asked if he thinks Trump will listen to his Cabinet.
Murphy added that while "some of these nominees don't seem to be a part of the same administration ... they're going to be shackled to his policy once he's sworn in."
Republicans are pressing Democrats to work with the president-elect, hoping to mitigate the looming fight over Trump's Cabinet nominees.
"They should not delay for just delay's sake, which unfortunately some have threatened to do," Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said from the Senate floor. "[Delaying] won't help this new administration, won't make America a safer place, and it will make us more vulnerable."
Vice President-elect Mike Pence, a former lawmaker with deep ties to Capitol Hill, has been meeting with Democrats to build bridges, including with Bob Casey (Pa.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Dianne Feinstein. (Calif.) and Bill Nelson (Fla.) on Tuesday.
Others, ranging from conservative Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to independent Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), have indicated that they won't say "no" to a proposal just because it's supported by Trump.
Some even see areas of common ground with the incoming administration.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), for example, said he's with the Trump team "on trade issues, infrastructure if they're genuine."
"[But I have trouble with a lot of their nominees who want to undo the mission ... that they were hired for," he added.