Threat of impeachment takes oxygen out of 2019 agenda

House investigations of the Trump administration and the prospect of impeachment are crowding out hopes for legislative progress on Capitol Hill, creating a poisonous atmosphere that makes it all but impossible for the White House and Democrats to work together.

Senators in both parties didn’t expect much legislation to move this year, but they still reacted with dismay to the latest blowup between President TrumpDonald John TrumpLincoln Project ad dubs Jared Kushner the 'Secretary of Failure' Pence: Chief Justice Roberts 'has been a disappointment to conservatives' Twitter bans Trump campaign until it deletes tweet with COVID-19 misinformation MORE and Democrats, saying it jeopardizes efforts to find common ground on even basic issues of governance.

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Trump surprised Democratic leaders Wednesday when he turned a meeting that was supposed to be about finding ways to pay for a major infrastructure package into a stern three-minute speech on how the House investigations make it impossible to pass legislation.

“It was a monologue by the president, who wheeled around and walked out,” said Senate Democratic Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDemocrats seek to exploit Trump-GOP tensions in COVID-19 talks The Hill's Campaign Report: Who will Biden pick to be his running mate? Don't count out Duckworth in Biden VP race MORE (Ill.), who described the scene in the room, and said Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerGroup of GOP senators back more money for airlines to pay workers GOP super PAC launching August ad blitz Schiff, Khanna call for free masks for all Americans in coronavirus aid package MORE (N.Y.) and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiGOP chairmen hit back at accusation they are spreading disinformation with Biden probe Negotiators remain far apart on coronavirus deal as deadline looms Top federal official says more details coming on foreign election interference MORE (D-Calif.) didn’t have a chance to say anything in response.

Many congressional Democrats have said this year they can walk and chew gum — meaning conducting oversight while moving agenda items. Trump made it clear Wednesday he’s not on board with that plan.

Legislative activity often slows in the second half of an election year, but it surprised lawmakers that the political posturing has gotten so intense in the off year.

“There are some things to be done that need to be done,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamYates spars with GOP at testy hearing Trump knocks Sally Yates ahead of congressional testimony Republicans uncomfortably playing defense MORE (R-S.C.) said.

Graham added that Democratic investigations in the House have “gone way overboard” but warned his fellow Republicans, “the answer for us is not to give up on governing.”

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Trump’s brief speech appeared to have been set off by Pelosi’s accusation earlier Wednesday that he was guilty of a “cover-up.”

“I don’t do cover-ups,” Trump said.

“I think a lot of it is Pelosi’s caucus. I think she’s under so much pressure there,” said Senate Republican Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneTrump dismisses legal questions on GOP nomination speech at White House GOP senator on Trump accepting nomination at White House: 'Is that even legal?' Trump says he's considering White House as venue for GOP nomination acceptance speech MORE (S.D.), who speculated she attacked Trump to appease House liberals who are pressing for impeachment. “That’s blowing things up. Around here, that’s kind of like dropping the nuclear bomb, to come out and accuse somebody of committing a crime and not having anything to back it up.”

But Sen. Doug Jones (Ala.), a centrist Democrat who faces a tough election next year, said he hopes tensions between the White House and the House will subside.

“Hopefully that will settle down. People are doing oversight,” he said. “As long as it’s oversight, no one should threaten to hold up anything when you do your constitutional duty of oversight.”

The prospect of a grand bargain on infrastructure, one of the few issues Trump and Democratic leaders saw as a promising opportunity for bipartisanship after the 2016 election, now appears all but dead.

And an agreement on setting spending caps for fiscal 2020 and fiscal 2021 and raising the debt ceiling beyond the next election now faces fresh uncertainty. 

Legislation to address the immigration crisis at the border, implement the USMCA trade deal — which would replace NAFTA — and fix the 2017 tax-reform law also appear stuck.

The prospect of the legislative process shutting down only five months into the 116th Congress is alarming lawmakers in both parties.

It’s a striking difference compared to 1998 and 1999, when then-President Clinton still worked with GOP leaders on legislation, even after they impeached him.

Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said, “I voted for the articles of impeachment. That was on a Friday. On the following Thursday Clinton called me about some inconsequential bill, wanted to know if we could move it along. Never mentioned the impeachment trial.”

“We went on about our business,” Lott added.

Graham urged Trump via Twitter on Wednesday not to abandon infrastructure, immigration and prescription drug reform.

“My advice to the President is to try to find solutions to problems like infrastructure, prescription drugs, and a broken immigration system,” Graham tweeted. “See if we can do two things at once — fight with each other and find common ground.”

But after Wednesday’s setback, lawmakers say the prospect of passing an infrastructure bill before next year’s election is slim.

Congress is likely to focus instead on moving a reauthorization of the Highway Trust Fund later this year.

Asked about reaching a broader infrastructure deal, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGOP chairmen hit back at accusation they are spreading disinformation with Biden probe On The Money: Unemployment debate sparks GOP divisions | Pandemic reveals flaws of unemployment insurance programs | Survey finds nearly one-third of rehired workers laid off again Unemployment debate sparks GOP divisions MORE (R-Iowa) said, “I don’t know how you can fund it.”

The Senate has spent almost all its time in recent weeks cranking through Trump’s executive branch and judicial nominees. The chamber has held only one legislative vote in May: a failed attempt to override Trump’s veto of a resolution directing the removal of U.S. troops from the civil war in Yemen.

Before that May 2 vote, the last time the Senate voted on legislation was April 1, when lawmakers voted to reject two competing disaster relief proposals.

“We have completed almost 25 percent of the time allotted to this current Congress, and what have we done? Other than nominations, which are important …. We have done nothing. Zero. Zilch. Nada,” Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.) said on the Senate floor Wednesday.

Other Senate GOP lawmakers say Pelosi and other Democrats seem more interested in investigating the president than passing bills that can actually get his signature to become law.

“Democrats in the House haven’t proved they want to legislate on anything yet,” said Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.).

But Democrats counter that Pelosi has passed many bills that are languishing in the Senate: a package of campaign fundraising, ethics and election reform provisions known as H.R. 1; expanded background checks for gun sales; the Paycheck Fairness Act; and a net neutrality bill.

Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - At loggerheads, Congress, White House to let jobless payout lapse Overnight Defense: Senate poised to pass defense bill with requirement to change Confederate base names | Key senator backs Germany drawdown | Space Force chooses 'semper supra' as motto Democrats call for expedited hearing for Trump's public lands nominee MORE (D-Mont.) noted that Trump’s threat comes at a time when the Senate is hardly bringing any bills to the floor.

“McConnell isn’t doing any legislative activity, so what’s the threat?” he said, referring to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellNegotiators remain far apart on coronavirus deal as deadline looms States begin removing Capitol's Confederate statues on their own Skepticism grows over Friday deadline for coronavirus deal MORE (R-Ky.). “McConnell ain’t doing shit on the floor so we’re not going to do legislative activity.”

“We got a bigger problem that sits in an office over there,” he said, while walking through the Ohio Clock Corridor near McConnell’s office, which has control over the Senate schedule.