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Hopes of bipartisanship fade amid Comey chaos

Hopes of bipartisanship fade amid Comey chaos
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Democrats on Capitol Hill have maintained high hopes of joining forces with the White House this year on issues ranging from infrastructure and tax reform to drug pricing and trade despite their differences with President Trump.

Then Trump fired James Comey.

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Trump’s remarkable decision last week to oust the FBI director amid his probe into ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia has soured the president’s already volatile relationship with congressional Democrats, heightening the attacks being launched across the aisle and dimming the chances of bipartisan cooperation on the few issues on which both sides seem to agree.

Trump has said repeatedly that he hopes to work with Democrats to accomplish some of his major legislative goals. But the circumstances surrounding Comey’s firing — and the hostile tone that’s accompanied it — have only elevated Democrats’ distrust in the president while threatening to undermine bipartisan alliances that were already on shaky ground.

“There’s been a series of abrupt U-turns on policy, and now it’s followed by erratic personal behavior,” said Rep. Peter WelchPeter Francis WelchEx-rep. is still costing taxpayers billions in prescription fees Senators offer bill to close rural-urban internet divide Clinton mulls role in 2018 midterms MORE (D-Vt.), referring to the “chaotic week” surrounding Comey’s ouster.  

“It’s so disruptive. I think it completely interferes with anything the president wants to do. It interferes with what Republicans want to do. It interferes with anything that some of us want to do together.”

For Welch, the disruption could carry a high price. Along with Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the Vermont liberal met with Trump at the White House in March to discuss legislation empowering Medicare to negotiate directly with pharmaceutical companies for lower drug prices — a Trump priority that’s long been anathema to most Republicans. 

The Democrats emerged from that meeting optimistic about having a rare Republican ally in their years-long push to overturn the ban on drug price negotiations.

But the turmoil following Comey’s ouster has not only consumed the White House with the task of dousing fires, Welch warned, it’s also threatened to steal some of the president’s influence over Republicans in Congress — influence he’d need to pressure GOP leaders to act on legislation they’ve historically opposed.

“When all of his time is absorbed with all of this drama, he doesn’t have the time or space to focus his administration on these other issues. That’s the problem,” Welch said. “Intention is one thing, but having the energy diverted makes progress on just about anything impossible.

“It’s just a God-awful mess.”

If Welch was focused on the practical ramifications of the Comey saga, other Democrats said the political effects will prove equally debilitating to the legislative progress.

Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyFlorida students turn to activism in wake of shooting House Dem joins protest at NRA headquarters following Florida school shooting Trump budget threatens local transit projects MORE (D-Va.) said Comey’s firing has created “an enormous obstacle” to bipartisan collaboration — not least because the Democratic grassroots so dislike Trump that any effort to work with him risks alienating the party’s base. Trump’s attacks on the Democrats who rushed to Comey’s defense, Connolly said, have only heightened the tensions.

“Every latest outrage, every latest vicious tweet, makes it hard for Democrats to cooperate with this president with any level of tolerance from the base,” Connolly said. “Democrats are increasingly aware that he’s making it so difficult to cooperate that to cooperate is at your peril.”

Trump’s shifting policy positions and willingness to buck party orthodoxy have made him an unpredictable force in the White House, and Democrats have hoped he’d cross party lines on a handful of issues where the sides agree. Along with Trump’s vow to rein in drug prices, the Democrats have been encouraged by the president’s push for a sweeping infrastructure package, as well as the gas-tax hike he recently floated as a means to pay for it.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said repeatedly that she’s ready to work with the president at every turn, a message echoed by other Democrats this week.

Indeed, leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus sent a letter to Trump Monday urging him to unite with Democrats on a range of bills designed to lower drug costs, including the Medicare negotiation proposal. The Comey episode, they say, shouldn’t impede those efforts.

“We’re not going to hold that against him on other issues,” Rep. Mark PocanMark William PocanDem criticizes Trump for ‘thumbs-up’ in Florida House Dem opposition mounts to budget deal This week: Trump delivers State of the Union amid immigration fight MORE (D-Wis.), vice chairman of the Progressive Caucus, said Monday by phone.

“If he really wants to make it so people have affordable prescription drugs, of course we’ll work with him. But at the same time we’re going to work like hell to make sure we get a special prosecutor [for the Russia probe] so the American people know what’s going on.”

The Democrats have already united with Trump on one major issue this year: the 2017 omnibus spending bill.

The bill passed through Congress late last month with overwhelming Democratic support and was signed by the president shortly afterward. And the Democrats’ filibuster powers in the Senate — combined with Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanRepublicans are avoiding gun talks as election looms The Hill's 12:30 Report Flake to try to force vote on DACA stopgap plan MORE’s (R-Wis.) struggle to rally Republican support behind fiscal bills — ensures that Trump and the Republicans will need Democratic support again later in the year when it comes time to raise the debt ceiling and fund the government beyond September.

In the meantime, however, there’s no doubt that the Comey firing is straining relations between a president who puts a premium on loyalty and the Democrats accusing him of obstructing justice. 

Pelosi said the Democrats will file a discharge petition Wednesday attempting to force a vote on the creation of an independent panel to investigate the Trump campaign’s Russia ties. And Senate Democrats are vowing to block any Comey replacement until a special prosecutor is appointed.

“That is the only way that the American public can have confidence in the justice system,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said on MSNBC Monday.

Other Democrats are going much further. Pocan last week suggested that if Congress has a metaphorical “impeachment clock,” the Comey firing “moved us about an hour closer to having that need.”

Rep. Al GreenAlexander (Al) N. GreenScarborough: Dems should pull funds from candidates who mention impeaching Trump Dem lawmaker meets with deported man in El Salvador The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (D-Texas) took the remarkable step Monday of proclaiming that the time for impeachment has already arrived.

“He has committed an impeachable act and must be charged,” Green said in a statement. “To do otherwise would cause some Americans to lose respect for, and obedience to, our societal norms.”