With the Russia investigations dominating the headlines — and Republicans increasingly worried about the fate of their House majority — GOP leaders on Capitol Hill are trying to tune out the controversy and notch legislative wins.
There’s already talk of shortening the August recess to give lawmakers more time to finalize health care legislation, raise the debt ceiling and begin work on tax reform. House Republicans are also working behind the scenes on a massive, partisan government spending bill they could try to quickly jam through the chamber this summer in lieu of the usual process of passing 12 separate appropriations bills.
Yet President Donald Trump’s war with ex-FBI Director James Comey and the ongoing probes into Russia’s role in the 2016 election continue to dominate the news. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is set to testify Tuesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee over Russia — including allegations that he may have had another undisclosed meeting with the Russian ambassador. Although Trump, his son and some of his political allies have tried to discredit Comey, they’re not getting any backup from Hill Republicans.
It’s the dual-edged sword of Trumpmania, the problem Republicans have faced since he became the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination back in 2015: He gets great ratings, won the White House and helped the GOP keep control of Congress. But neither Trump nor party leaders have proved able so far to turn ratings into the legislation he promised on the campaign trail.
GOP leaders can seem like they’re covering their ears as they blare out their message on their legislative agenda. Senate Republican leaders are focused on finalizing an Obamacare replacement bill that they could push through the chamber before the July 4th recess. House Republicans are trying to write a fiscal 2018 budget that pleases both conservatives and defense hawks.
Meanwhile, leaders in both chambers are trying play up smaller victories, hoping to show voters they’re following through on campaign pledges.
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), appearing on Fox News’ “Sunday Morning Futures,” touted a House-passed repeal of landmark Obama administration banking regulations, which he said “crushed our local community banks” and “made it hard and more expensive” for first-time home buyers and small businesses to get a loan.
The House bill “guts Dodd-Frank, returns power back to local communities and gets the weight and burden of regulations off our families,” Scalise said. “That’s the kind of thing we’ve been doing in the House: passing bills to get some of these unworkable regulations off the backs of people so that we can get the economy moving again.”
Yet the legislation is certain to be derailed by Senate Democrats, as are nearly all other Trump initiatives, such as a border wall between the United States and Mexico.
The colliding dynamics have created a sense of an alternate reality that exists for GOP leaders. Around the Capitol campus Thursday morning, most eyes were affixed to TV screens playing Comey’s testimony as he admitted to leaking memos of his conversations with Trump in hopes of triggering the appointment of a special counsel.
At almost the same moment, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) walked into a near-empty news conference and gave a PowerPoint presentation arguing that this was the most productive Congress in recent years.
“We have passed 158 bills,” McCarthy declared proudly. “So pretty good movement going forward.”
“Every day, we are making progress on our agenda for the country,” Ryan said, arguing lawmakers can “walk and chew gum at the same time” — legislating and probing the Russia matter.
The positive spin is not breaking through. The Sunday talk shows were almost entirely focused on Comey’s testimony. And the probe of Moscow’s interference in the election has spun off into new questions of whether Trump obstructed justice by firing Comey after urging him to drop an FBI probe into ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn.
After Trump denied Comey’s account of their meeting, lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol last week began asking the White House to turn over any tapes of those conversations. Trump said he’s “100 percent” willing to answer questions under oath. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Sunday called on Trump to appear before senators, although that will almost certainly never happen.
On Tuesday, Sessions will testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee in a last-minute hearing. Sessions wants to push back on Comey’s suggestion last week that there were additional factors, which have not yet become public, that prevented the attorney general’s involvement in the Russia investigation. Though Sessions was also scheduled to testify on his department’s budget, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein will appear before the House and Senate appropriations panels in his place.
GOP leaders hope to approve and send to Trump the first major Veterans Affairs accountability bill in the three years since the agency began grappling with criticism over extra-long waits for medical care. The House has passed similar proposals, which allow the VA to fire workers for bad behavior or poor performance, but they often stalled in the Senate.
However, the Senate passed a compromise version of the bill last week, meaning the legislation reforming the agency can be enacted as soon as the House passes it.
Behind the scenes, House leaders are also trying to corral their unwieldy conference into agreeing on a fiscal 2018 budget. On Wednesday, they will have a members-only meeting in a bid to resolve the divisions between defense-minded lawmakers demanding more money for the military and conservatives who want to cut mandatory safety net programs.
Leading the to-do list in the Senate: finalizing an Obamacare replacement that can muster 51 votes. Senate GOP leaders hope to submit the bill to the Congressional Budget Office for scoring early this week, though they missed their original goal to do so at the end of last week. They’ve been exchanging rough blueprints of their ideas with the CBO, but they need to finalize the text.
There’s still a major split between moderates like Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and conservatives such as Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) over the future of Medicaid funding and health care tax credits for lower-income earners.
But GOP leaders are hoping the pressure of getting something done by early July will persuade members to compromise.
“Everybody realizes that everybody isn’t going to get what they want, that this is going to be an imperfect product and that we have to act,” said No. 3 Senate Republican John Thune of South Dakota. “So the question is, how much maneuverability is there … to try and tweak this thing to get just that sort of ideal combination that’s as conservative a bill that we can get through the Senate that’s consistent with our philosophy.”
The Senate is also expected to finish work on a bipartisan Iran sanctions bill this week, although the debate may get upended by still-uncertain negotiations on attaching new punishment for Russia to the legislation.
Democrats have warned that absent a strong Russia sanctions deal, including potential restrictions on any changes Trump might make to sanctions, the GOP might find itself short of the votes needed to pass its Iran package.
Elana Schor and Burgess Everett contributed to this report.
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