The controversy over President Donald Trump's abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey has threatened to slow or even stall Republicans’ policy agenda on Capitol Hill. Already facing Democratic opposition on some of their top priorities, Republicans insist the matter won't derail them but it's already proven to be a distraction at the very least.
As the week began, Senate Republicans were focused on health care after the House narrowly passed its version of legislation to overhaul Obamacare. By Friday, health care, tax reform and other top GOP priorities had been shoved off the front-burner, at least momentarily, by the abrupt firing of Comey and new questions about the future of investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Comey’s ouster means that the Senate will have to confirm a new director to replace him, a process that has already shown signs of controversy as Democrats are demanding more answers about the timing of the firing and the FBI’s investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
A host of Democrats have said that they won’t consider a new replacement to lead the FBI until a special counsel has been appointed to oversee that investigation, which Comey was leading.
“Frankly we should hold off on the FBI director until we get this special prosecutor,” said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, indicating that he would try to slow down or block the confirmation of any FBI director.
The bombshell that shook Washington this week has further strained a slow-moving Senate schedule that is void of any major legislative achievement. For the first months of this year, the upper chamber has been consumed with processing Trump's nominees — including the successful confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch — as well as GOP-backed Congressional Review Act measures to roll-back regulation from the Obama administration.
The Senate has moved slowly, in part because of its rules, but also because Democrats have opposed the GOP's agenda.
That's why one GOP senate aide sees little impact of the Comey firing. “The Democrats were already opposing everything all the time. Unless you are Spinal Tap you can’t really turn the opposition volume from 10 to 11,” the aide said.
Senate Republicans began the Congressional year with a long to-do list, but it has been shrunk to accommodate the realities of governing in a partisan environment. They still, however, are working to pass a repeal of the Affordable Care Act and a reform of the tax system before the end of the fiscal year in September — two major pieces of legislation that don’t need the support of Republicans because of a budget mechanism Republicans plan on using.
Democrats say that go-it-alone approach increases the prospects of any gridlock that grips the Senate.
“I think we need to move ahead as much as possible to get things done for the American people. ... But trust is very, very difficult when the administration is trashing the oath of law,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told reporters this week.
Democrats successfully held up a days’ worth of hearings on Capitol Hill Wednesday, the morning after Comey’s firing, which is just one example of how they can slow down the process on Capitol Hill.
Republicans insist that little has changed. A group of 13 senators have been plotting a way forward on health care, holding two meetings this week and the entire Republican conference spent much of their time on the subject at two lunches.
For instance, they held their regularly scheduled lunch on Wednesday that lasted for nearly an hour-and-a-half, focused on health care. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said the caucus discussed Comey for maybe “90 seconds” on the topic.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn, who is leading the health care talks, predicted the Comey matter won’t detract from his work.
“I actually think that Republicans and Democrats will be looking for exactly the same thing: a very well-qualified FBI director of unimpeachable integrity who can lead the FBI and continue the investigation into what the Russians were doing in our election. I don’t think it makes any difference for health care,” Alexander said.
But the reality is that the controversy has eaten into the rest of their work already. At their conference lunch on Thursday, which was supposed to again focus on health care, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., briefed his fellow Republicans on the conversation he had earlier in the day with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein who the Trump administration said recommended Comey’s firing.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V. and a member of the Intelligence Committee, said the Senate needs to move on to other business beyond Russia and Comey, but he noted that it is becoming more difficult.
“We have to make sure we do a thorough job and leave no stone unturned… and go wherever the intelligence takes us,” he says.
While Senate rules and the calendar make sudden distractions like the Comey firing more damaging to their broader policy agenda, at least one Republican operative it could prove beneficial.
"It takes attention and fire away from an important policy effort," the operative said. "Having the focus and the fury over a personnel matter could make the policy items a little easier because it dials down the attention and scrutiny from the hard left."
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana, said he was confident his work on health care would not be impeded by Comey's ouster.
He then struggled to fight his way past a mob of reporters blocking the elevators as they questioned his Democratic colleagues. "Does anyone see the down button?" he said.