For Senate GOP, impeachment impedes legislative agenda — that may not exist

Senate likely returns to judicial nominations after impeachment trial

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, arrives to the Senate carriage entrance of the Capitol before the continuation of the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, arrives to the Senate carriage entrance of the Capitol before the continuation of the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 30, 2020 at 11:48am

It’s been a constant refrain from Republican senators over the last two weeks: The impeachment trial is blocking us from addressing our legislative agenda.

“While this case is pending, we can’t do anything else,” Texas Republican John Cornyn complained earlier this week, postulating that paralyzing the Senate with impeachment proceedings was part of House Democrats’ strategy.

[2020 Senate and House outlook looks a lot like it did at the start of 2019]

Sen. Rick Scott of Florida has released more than a half-dozen videos over the last two weeks as part of what he’s calling a “Let’s Get Back to Work” series.

“I’ve been held hostage with 99 other people in the U.S. Capitol. Why? Because the Democrats hate Donald J. Trump and are trying to cover up Joe Biden’s corruption,” the Florida Republican tweeted on Tuesday.

But when you peel back the rhetorical cover, it’s unclear exactly what nitty-gritty policy work these Republican senators are so desperate to return to, aside from confirming more of President Donald Trump’s judicial nominations.

There appears to be no pending major legislation ready for a floor vote, other than Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine’s bipartisan war powers resolution curbing Trump’s ability to attack Iran.

Kaine has said throughout the impeachment trial that he is looking for time for the resolution, but there has not been a window.

Kaine said two weeks ago he had enough Republican votes to pass the resolution, which is expected to receive a prompt veto from Trump if it ever lands on his desk.

The Senate impeachment trial has, for the time being, prohibited Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky from scheduling more votes on Trump’s judicial nominations, but that’s far from the lofty policy goals Republican lawmakers have alluded to.

There are eight presidential nominees to be federal district judges, as well as one circuit court nominee, currently pending on the executive calendar. The Senate Judiciary Committee, led by Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has not been moving federal judge nominees during the trial.

Many GOP senators have opposed calls from Democrats — and suggestions from some moderates in their own caucus — to subpoena new witnesses and documents, arguing that the ensuing battles over questions of executive privilege could take months to adjudicate in the courts.

“We’d be here through the general election,” Cornyn said. “We’d like to pass a prescription drug bill, we’d like to do a highway bill and other things, all of which would be precluded if we’re hung up in an extended court fight over privilege claims.”

Nothing prior to the impeachment proceedings suggests the Senate was anywhere close to beginning negotiations on such legislation with the House.

House Democratic leaders, meanwhile, have criticized their cross-chamber colleagues who’ve argued they want to get the impeachment trial over with so the Senate can return to the people’s business.

“The Senate has not been doing the people’s business,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said Tuesday. “We would hope they would get to it, not return, because they haven’t been doing it,” the Maryland Democrat added.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she laughed when she heard what Republican senators have been saying.

The Senate has “had plenty of legislation to pass,” the California Democrat said, referring to House-passed bills that have languished in the Senate.

The legislation that has stalled in the Senate includes a universal background check bill, net neutrality, and reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, though most Senate Republicans oppose them as written.

The Republicans’ clamor over the last two weeks to return to the “people’s business” presents an interesting duality with McConnell’s boasts last year to voters in his home state that he would be the “Grim Reaper” for House-passed bills championed by Democrats — while not cultivating major legislation in his own chamber.

Trump, for his part, has tried at various points during his first three years in office to initiate negotiations on a host of pressing issues.

He has, for instance, long called for a wide-ranging infrastructure package, but Senate Republicans have quickly doused such talks since they often begin with calls for raising taxes or adding to the already ballooning federal deficit.

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee advanced a bipartisan highway bill last July, but it has not advanced to the floor. The current five-year surface transportation law expires at the end of September.

House Democrats on Wednesday unveiled a $760 billion infrastructure package that is unlikely to receive much Republican support in its current form, though House Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member Sam Graves of Missouri released a list of GOP principles for the bill, urging Democrats to incorporate their priorities into a broader measure.

Republican gripes with the current proposal center mainly on how to pay for it.

Niels Lesniewski and Jessica Wehrman contributed to this report.

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