Congress

Cummings unites lawmakers, for the moment, as impeachment inquiry trudges forward

Probe that late Maryland Democrat helped lead continued with witness depositions Thursday

A memorial for the late House Oversight and Reform Chairman Elijah E. Cummings is seen in the committee’s Rayburn Building hearing room on Thursday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House lawmakers dialed down the partisan rancor, at least for a day, as they honored the life of Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who died early Thursday at age 68. But the impeachment inquiry, of which the Maryland Democrat was a key leader, is forging ahead.

The investigation into President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine has stoked anger among Republicans who view the probe as illegitimate. Democrats’ frustrations with the president’s conduct and his supporters in Congress are only growing. The death of Cummings, held in deep respect on both sides of the aisle, didn’t put the partisan fighting completely to rest, but it did quell the most inflammatory elements for the moment.

One of the first such signs came early Thursday morning when Rep. Matt Gaetz canceled a press conference where he planned to “demand increased transparency and inclusion in the impeachment process from House Democrats,” specifically aimed at Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff.

“This morning, I felt it was appropriate to postpone an anti-impeachment press conference scheduled for today out of respect for my colleague Congressman Elijah Cummings,” Gaetz told CQ Roll Call.

The Florida Republican has called the inquiry a “sham process,” and questioned the legitimacy of the proceedings. But on Thursday, he stepped back from the microphones.

“There are important discussions to be had on impeachment, foreign policy, and other matters in the U.S. Congress. But today, I felt it was important to suspend that discussion and honor a lifetime of service from a fellow member,” Gaetz said.

Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz appreciated the gesture from her fellow Floridian.

“I think if a Republican chose to — especially like Matt Gaetz — chose to indefinitely postpone or cancel a press conference in which he was going to use invective and partisan attacks, on a day like today, that’s appropriate,” she said on her way out of the deposition of Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union.

Of the work of the Oversight Committee, which Cummings chaired until his death, “the work continues,” she said. 

Another recognition from Republicans of the solemn day came as House Freedom Caucus Chairman Andy Biggs, in consultation with GOP leaders, agreed to delay a vote to censure Schiff. Biggs had offered a privileged motion on the floor Wednesday to call up the censure resolution, and a vote had been scheduled for Thursday.

Biggs sent Pelosi a letter Thursday saying he did “not wish to intrude on the grief felt by [Cummings’] colleagues today by proceeding with a floor vote of my motion to censure Adam Schiff.”

While he said he was “sanguine” with the agreement to hold the vote Monday, he noted that he felt it was odd that the impeachment inquiry otherwise proceeded Thursday while his vote was rescheduled.

“It is terribly disrespectful that Chairman Schiff could not find a warm spot in his heart to delay his rush to impeach the president for even a single day so that we might all reflect on Chairman Cummings, his life, and things that are bigger than any of us,” the Arizona Republican said.

“I thought it was very gracious of him in respect for Congressman Cummings’ passing. We’ll keep our prayers with him as well,” Minority Whip Steve Scalise told CQ Roll Call. 

Scalise said he didn’t know Cummings well but found him to be warm and gentle whenever he said hello. Cummings was a “tough battler, passionate about what he believed in but never made any of those battles personal and you could always just have a great conversation with him,” the Louisiana Republican said.

Remembrances before work continued

Although Cummings’ colleagues on both sides of the aisle were in mourning, no committee activities or votes were canceled. The impeachment inquiry that Cummings helped lead, along with Schiff and Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot L. Engel, continued with its depositions of witnesses, hearing Thursday from Sondland.

Members present for the deposition said that the tone of the proceedings and members’ questioning was not different in light of Cummings passing.

“I saw no impact of that in the deposition,” said Oversight member Gerald E. Connolly, despite the “great sorrow and for many of us a very personal loss.”

Before the deposition got under way Schiff and Oversight ranking member Jim Jordan made remarks about Cummings, according to Rep. Ted Lieu.

Foreign Affairs member Ami Bera said the committee also held a moment of silence for Cummings. The remarks from the committee leaders at the beginning recognized that Cummings is “a boss of the institution,” the California Democrat said.

While the nature and tone of the questioning didn’t change, Cummings likely wouldn’t have wanted it to on his account, his colleagues said.

“I think that’s the best way to honor Elijah Cummings is to get to the truth,” Bera said.

Cummings’ former committees and those tackling the impeachment inquiry were not alone in taking time to recognize him before getting down to legislative business.

The House Ways and Means and House Energy and Commerce committees both took a moment of silence at the start of their meetings on prescription drug pricing.

Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat, and ranking Republican Kevin Brady of Texas each spoke about their late colleague in their opening statements.

Neal raised the prospect of renaming the drug pricing bill for Cummings, which Pelosi later made official.

Missouri Republican Billy Long used his time in Energy and Commerce to talk about Cummings, passing up the chance to talk about the legislation at hand. But partisan tensions heated up as the markup continued and lawmakers sparred over the drug pricing proposals.

Floor tribute crosses the aisle

Republicans and Democrats also took time on the floor to appreciate the cooling of tempers and rhetoric, however limited, in the wake of Cummings' death.

“No matter how rough and tumble things would be, he would always just calm the waters. Reach out across the aisle or across the issue, across the Capitol, down Pennsylvania Avenue,” Pelosi said during the remembrance. 

Most members were seated in the chamber for speeches honoring Cummings that preceded a moment of silence. Members on both sides of the aisle wiped away tears as Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told stories about Cummings.

“Whenever have you served in this body that we have been this calm and this quiet and this reflective? Elijah’s work is still good with us right now,” McCarthy said.

Quiet laughter followed McCarthy’s telling of how Republicans saw Cummings as a formidable and respected adversary on committees and always carefully chose an especially tough ranking member or chairman to face off against him.

“And every time someone would was selected, they’d come back to be a very best friend of Elijah Cummings,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy and Pelosi both urged lawmakers to keep Cummings in mind when political tensions, inevitably, rise again.

“I hope as the days progress, as the times change, and our debate gets heated again, that we reflect on this moment of calmness, reflect on this moment of thinking of one another,” said McCarthy. “In his honor, let’s find that tomorrow will be better than today and that this calmness will last longer than the next vote.”

Pelosi held back tears when she told the House that she didn’t know that Cummings was so close to death.

“I thought he was coming back in a few weeks,” she admitted.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, who was close friends with Cummings and called him often, said Cummings had been hard to reach in the past week.

“Last night I left after the last vote assuring Marcia Fudge that I was going to call Elijah Cummings this morning because he told me that calling him in the morning was the easiest time to reach him. So it’s been pretty tough,” the Missouri Democrat said. “We all knew that he was sick. I’m not sure that any of us were willing to accept the fact that he was sickened to death.”

Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Karen Bass organized a Thursday afternoon gathering so members could be with one another in their time of mourning “because we consider ourselves a family,” Cleaver said. He said many CBC members close to Cummings were awakened in the early hours of the morning and given the news that he died around 2:30 a.m.

“I cried in my apartment this morning, got it out of the way,” he said.

What particularly pained Cleaver was watching one of the TV networks airing Cummings “ministering” to Michael Cohen, the former longtime personal attorney to Trump, in an Oversight hearing.

“Cohen was almost brought to tears during that hearing as Cummings talked about his two daughters,” he said.

Cleaver said the Congress will need someone to fill Cummings’ shoes in terms of the temperament with which he led the impeachment inquiry.

“We need somebody who's going to be thoughtful as we go through what I think will be considered by historians the most difficult period in the history of the republic,” he said. “Nobody can accuse Elijah Cummings of having made up his mind about everything. He was very, very cautious and thoughtful.”

Mary Ellen McIntire and Andrew Siddons contributed to this report.

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