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 TrumpTrump's newest Russia adviser, Andrew Peek, leaves post: report Hawley expects McConnell's final impeachment resolution to give White House defense ability to motion to dismiss Trump rips New York City sea wall: 'Costly, foolish' and 'environmentally unfriendly idea' 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 DurbinSunday shows preview: Lawmakers gear up for Senate impeachment trial Parnas pressure grows on Senate GOP Overnight Defense: Book says Trump called military leaders 'dopes and babies' | House reinvites Pompeo for Iran hearing | Dems urge Esper to reject border wall funding request MORE (Ill.), who described the scene in the room, and said Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTrump administration installs plaque marking finish of 100 miles of border wall Sanders defends vote against USMCA: 'Not a single damn mention' of climate change Schumer votes against USMCA, citing climate implications MORE (N.Y.) and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiREAD: House impeachment managers' trial brief Desperate Democrats badmouth economy even as it booms Pelosi offers message to Trump on Bill Maher show: 'You are impeached forever' 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 GrahamSunday shows preview: Lawmakers gear up for Senate impeachment trial Parnas pressure grows on Senate GOP Senate GOP mulls speeding up Trump impeachment trial 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 ThuneSenate to vote on Trump's Canada, Mexico trade deal Thursday Senate braces for Trump impeachment trial Republicans face internal brawl over impeachment witnesses 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 GrassleySenate begins preparations for Trump trial Big Pharma looks to stem losses after trade deal defeat Appeals court skeptical of Trump rule on TV drug ads 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) TesterPelosi set to send impeachment articles to the Senate next week Pelosi says she'll send articles of impeachment to Senate 'soon' Pressure building on Pelosi over articles of impeachment 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 McConnellHawley expects McConnell's final impeachment resolution to give White House defense ability to motion to dismiss Democrats file brief against Trump, 'the Framers' worst nightmare' Iran resolution supporters fear impeachment will put it on back burner 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.