Senators concerned impeachment will consume agenda

Senators are growing increasingly alarmed that the hyperfocus on impeachment has killed their legislative agenda heading into 2020.

The House impeachment inquiry has quickly sucked up the political oxygen in Washington, ramping up tensions between Congress and the White House ahead of next year’s elections. The high-stakes standoff is now raising questions about what, if anything, will get signed into law.

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“We only have so much bandwidth, and if the bandwidth is all going to be used up pursuing this futile effort to remove the president, then that’s going to come at a cost. And I think the cost will be legislation that we could pass,” said Sen. John CornynJohn CornynBolton sparks internal GOP fight over witnesses Trump legal team begins second day of arguments under Bolton furor Trump legal team offers brisk opening defense of president MORE (R-Texas), an adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellRepublicans show little enthusiasm for impeachment witness swap Overnight Health Care — Presented by Philip Morris International — CDC, State Department warn against travel to China | Biden says Trump left US unprepared for epidemic | Justices allow Trump 'public charge' rule to move forward Progressive group targeting vulnerable GOP senators on impeachment witnesses MORE (R-Ky.).

Pressed on the fate of “must-pass legislation” like funding the government and a mammoth defense policy bill, Cornyn added, “hopefully those won’t be casualties, but around here it’s anybody’s guess.”

Lawmakers are pointing fingers about who is to blame for the fallout as bicameral legislation slows to a crawl. The last bill signed into law that was substantial enough to require a roll call vote in the Senate was September’s continuing resolution. 

Since then, the House formally launched its impeachment inquiry, leading the White House to warn that Democrats had “destroyed any chances of legislative progress.”

Gun background check talks, which had been ongoing before the impeachment inquiry, have fallen off the map. And a meeting with congressional leadership went off the rails when Trump called Pelosi a “third-rate politician” and Democrats stormed out. 

Asked how the White House had done promoting a legislative agenda during the impeachment fight, Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinSenate Republicans face pivotal moment on impeachment witnesses Democrats see Mulvaney as smoking gun witness at Trump trial Trump legal team offers brisk opening defense of president MORE (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, laughed.

“Put a gun to my head and ask me to name the Senate congressional liaison, and I’ll tell you just pull the trigger. I don’t even know who it is,” Durbin said. 

The stalemate on major bills comes as Congress has roughly 20 legislative days left before 2020. Within that span of time they’re faced with funding the government, reauthorizing controversial surveillance programs, passing a mammoth defense policy bill and trying to tick off wish-list items like drug pricing and Trump’s trade agreement with Canada and Mexico. 

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Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyTax season could bring more refund confusion Graham vows Biden, Ukraine probe after impeachment trial Social security emerges as latest flash point in Biden-Sanders tussle MORE (R-Iowa) warned that he didn’t think the trade deal, known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), would get passed this year. 

“The Democratically-controlled House of Representatives looks increasingly less likely to act this year on USMCA. That threatens passage of the trilateral trade deal this Congress, as next year is a presidential election year,” he said. 

Asked about the White House’s legislative agenda, Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonGraham vows Biden, Ukraine probe after impeachment trial GOP warns of 'drawn out' executive privilege battle over Bolton testimony  Senate Republicans confident they'll win fight on witnesses MORE (R-Wis.) noted regulatory reforms and restructuring within the administration. When a reporter pointed out those items don’t require working with Congress, Johnson knocked Democrats over the pending trade agreement. 

“We’re trying to get USMCA passed,” he said. “Unfortunately, we have some real obstructions.”

Senators are urging Trump and lawmakers to come to the table where they need to pass legislation, like funding the government, or other areas of potential bipartisan agreement.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham says he wants to see Bolton manuscript Bolton upends Trump impeachment trial  Juan Williams: Democrats can't let Trump off the hook MORE (R-S.C.) is urging Trump to follow the Clinton playbook and continue to reach out to lawmakers about legislation even as he’s the center of an impeachment inquiry. 

“I think he needs to reach out to Democrats and Republicans and say in the middle of all this mess, ‘Let’s see if we can do something on the USMCA and prescription drugs,’ ” Graham said.

Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntTrump team doubles down despite Bolton bombshell Bolton upends Trump impeachment trial  Bolton sparks internal GOP fight over witnesses MORE (Mo.), a member of GOP leadership, pointed to tax extenders, trade agreements and funding the government as possible things that could move under the cloud of impeachment.

“[It] continues to be one of the fundamental responsibilities of the Congress, along with the president, to fund the government so … I’m sure we’ll figure out how to do that,” Blunt said.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbySenate fails to get deal to speed up fight over impeachment rules Roberts under pressure from both sides in witness fight GOP senator on Trump soliciting foreign interference: 'Those are just statements' MORE (R-Ala.) added, "I think we'll have some bipartisan goodwill. I hope it's enough."

Durbin, however, was more pessimistic, saying he didn’t think there was anything bipartisan enough to be able to pass. But, he acknowledged, “it would be” beneficial for the White House and Democrats to be able to show voters they accomplished something.

“Infrastructure, remember that one? Blew up in our face,” he said.

In a sign that both sides realize they need legislative victories ahead of Election Day, congressional leaders are trying to claim the mantle of being willing to work with the other side on bills.

McConnell has repeatedly teed off against Democrats from the Senate floor, arguing they’re holding up the trade deal and military funding.

“The needs of the American people have not been put on pause just because the Democrats have decided it doesn’t suit them to get along with the White House," McConnell said. 

In a separate speech this week, he said Democrats have insisted “the three-year-old quest to impeach the president will not prevent them from the substantive work. ... So far, the early results haven’t been promising.”

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerMeadows: Republicans who break with Trump could face political repercussions Bolton book alleges Trump tied Ukraine aid freeze to Biden investigations: NYT Trump legal team offers brisk opening defense of president MORE (D-N.Y.) fired back, blasting McConnell over the “legislative graveyard,” a descriptor Democrats have adopted to knock the GOP leader for refusing to hold votes on their top priorities.

“The Republican leader, in recent days, has charged that because the House of Representatives is now engaged in its constitutional duty to examine presidential wrongdoing, that somehow Democrats are not interested in legislating,” Schumer said. “Curious criticism coming from leader McConnell … the man who proudly calls himself the ‘Grim Reaper.’ "