Amid impeachment saga, a kitchen sink of legislative dealing

Sen. Alexander: ‘There’s more to life than judges and impeachment’

Sen. Lamar Alexander says, “There’s more to life than judges and impeachment.” (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Lamar Alexander says, “There’s more to life than judges and impeachment.” (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted December 12, 2019 at 5:00am

The holiday rush on Capitol Hill is in full swing, and the bipartisan legislative lethargy is showing signs of easing even as the House debates articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump.

Senate and House negotiators are still trying to reach an agreement on a bundle of spending bills, but there has been a relative abundance of other bipartisan deal-making and even actual legislation passing in the Senate.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, who is chairman of both the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and the Energy-Water Subcommittee, has been in the mix on much of the recent bargaining.

“I think that members of Congress, like the American people, are maybe coming to the conclusion that there’s more to life than judges and impeachment, even though judges and impeachment are very important,” the Tennessee Republican told CQ Roll Call. “I suspect that feeling will grow if we go to an impeachment trial in January. I think when we come out of that I expect there to be a strong appetite for bipartisan legislation that’s important to the country.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has prioritized confirming the president’s lifetime appointments to the federal judiciary over almost all other Senate business, except for must-pass measures.

Using the “walk and chew gum” metaphor, Alexander highlighted, among other matters, recently passed legislation to streamline the process for FDA approval of new ingredients sold in drugs without a prescription, or updating the labels for over-the-counter products.

He also praised the recent passage of a bipartisan deal that would provide $255 million annually for historically black colleges and universities and advance one of his top priorities: a streamlined federal student aid form.

Over in the House, as the Judiciary Committee prepared to consider impeachment articles against the president, the chamber on Wednesday adopted the conference report to accompany the fiscal 2020 defense authorization, smoothing the way for Senate passage and the president to sign it into law. 

“In a time of significant discord, this NDAA represents a responsible compromise that strengthens our national defense capabilities. This conference agreement enhances military readiness, makes needed reforms, and provides our Armed Forces with the equipment and training needed to deter our adversaries and respond to global threats,” Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the chamber’s Armed Services panel, said in a statement this week.

Aside from stalled stand-alone measures, there were some signs of hope  that the dam would burst open for a big spending package that could be a vehicle for other crucial legislation.

Senate Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa was still looking to move a package of extensions of expired and expiring tax and health policy measures, perhaps riding on a kitchen sink of a consolidated appropriations measure for fiscal 2020.

“Everything I tell you will depend entirely upon whether we’re going to have an end-of-the-year omnibus bill as opposed to a continuing resolution. I would hope to get tax extenders and health extenders on that, at the very least,” Grassley said Wednesday. “But as of 12:15 today, it’s not certain that we’re going to have an omnibus.”

Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby of Alabama was relatively upbeat Wednesday about the prospects of getting to a final deal, even as impeachment articles move across the House floor.

“I see some leaks in the dam every now and then,” Shelby said. “We need to break it. It’s crucial right now because of the time, you know, the calendar.”

“A lot of it has nothing to do with appropriations. You know, it’s just extraneous, but sometimes we have to get rid of it,” Shelby told reporters.

Likewise, Alexander hoped that the House would move ahead with resolving fiscal 2020 spending before a Trump impeachment vote. The current continuing resolution funding the government expires on Dec. 20. 

“I think there’s growing cautious optimism that the House and the Senate and the president will complete the appropriations bills at the end of the week and give the House the chance to vote on Monday or Tuesday,” Alexander said.

That comports with what top Democrats see as well. 

House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey said Wednesday evening that negotiators could reach agreement on full-year funding bills by the end of Thursday.

“I think if all goes well, we could have a deal by the end of the day tomorrow,” Lowey said after reviewing a midday offer that Republicans sent over.

“I think their offer was real and we’re discussing it and we can find some agreement,” Lowey said.

“It’s not Christmas yet, but it is December 11. I think there’s hope that we are going to finish up,” Sen. Thomas R. Carper said, highlighting the working relationship of the leaders of the Appropriations Committee in the Senate.

The Delaware Democrat also referred to the upcoming House floor vote on the updated trade agreement with Canada and Mexico, known as USMCA.

“It turns out Nancy Pelosi, our speaker, and Ambassador [Robert] Lighthizer work well together, like each other and have been able to get everybody in line, I think,” on the trade deal, Carper said.

McConnell announced Tuesday that the measure is not going to be moving in the Senate before the Christmas break.

“When McConnell says it’s going to be next year, it’s going to be next year regardless of what Chuck Grassley thinks,” said Grassley, whose panel has jurisdiction over trade policy.

The trade pact, which would replace NAFTA, appears likely to be among the final votes on the House floor of the year, after adoption of articles of impeachment. Republican Sen. John Cornyn, a Finance Committee member and former whip, said he has long expected such a vote order.

“I’ve always predicted that Speaker Pelosi would want to show something that her members in swing districts could run on, and avoid the criticism that they focused solely on impeachment to the detriment of passing any meaningful legislation, so I think that’s why we have the sop of the USMCA,” Cornyn said.

Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia cautioned against reading too much into the flurry of activity.

“This stuff could have been before now, but it’s just getting to be the tendency that you wait until the end of the year because then you try and use the leverage of the other thing to get what you want here,” Kaine said. “I wouldn’t use it as evidence that there’s a new cooperative attitude.”

Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.