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 CornynLawmakers already planning more coronavirus stimulus after T package Cuban says he'd spank daughter if she was partying during coronavirus pandemic Twitter comes under fire over Chinese disinformation on coronavirus MORE (R-Texas), an adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellCoronavirus pushes GOP's Biden-Burisma probe to back burner Struggling states warn coronavirus stimulus falls short Hillicon Valley: Apple rolls out coronavirus screening app, website | Pompeo urged to crack down on coronavirus misinformation from China | Senators push FTC on price gouging | Instacart workers threaten strike 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 DurbinLegal immigrants at risk of losing status during coronavirus pandemic Senate rejects GOP attempt to change unemployment benefits in coronavirus stimulus bill Senators pen op-ed calling for remote voting amid coronavirus pandemic 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 GrassleyCoronavirus pushes GOP's Biden-Burisma probe to back burner Lobbying blitz yields wins for airlines, corporations, banks, unions Chances for drug pricing, surprise billing action fade until November 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 JohnsonCoronavirus pushes GOP's Biden-Burisma probe to back burner GOP seeks up to 0 billion to maximize financial help to airlines, other impacted industries Dr. Rand Paul's prescription for combating the coronavirus crisis 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 GrahamSunday shows preview: Lawmakers, state governors talk coronavirus, stimulus package and resources as pandemic rages on Campaigns pivot toward health awareness as races sidelined by coronavirus UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson tests positive for coronavirus 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 BluntHillicon Valley: Apple rolls out coronavirus screening app, website | Pompeo urged to crack down on coronavirus misinformation from China | Senators push FTC on price gouging | Instacart workers threaten strike Lawmakers already planning more coronavirus stimulus after T package Senate Democrats vow to keep pushing for more funds for mail-in voting 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 ShelbyCoronavirus bill includes more than billion in SNAP funding White House billion emergency request balloons to 2 billion in Senate coronavirus stimulus talks Five sticking points to a T coronavirus deal 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 SchumerTexas man arrested for allegedly threatening Democrats over coronavirus bill Pelosi not invited by Trump to White House coronavirus relief bill's signing COVID-19, Bill Barr and the American authoritarian tradition 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.’ "