BY JOE WILLIAMS AND NIELS LESNIEWSKI
A partisan standoff in the fallout of the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey could significantly stall the Senate legislative calendar, as Democrats appear ready to utilize procedural rules to coerce Republicans into acting on a number of demands.
The decision by President Donald Trump to terminate Comey sent shockwaves through Capitol Hill on Wednesday. Republicans decried the timing and manner in which it was done and Democrats blasted the administration for firing the man heading the investigation of possible ties between Trump’s presidential campaign and the Russian government.
While GOP lawmakers tried their best to redirect attention to the legislative calendar, Democrats employed delay tactics to stall much of the Senate’s work in an effort to pressure Republicans to act. For a chamber looking to rework the nation’s health insurance system, rewrite its tax code, raise the debt limit and begin trying to figure out how to fund the government past the current fiscal year, the current situation might not augur well for any legislative ambitions.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer took to the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon to lay out the list of actions the Democratic conference would push for in the coming weeks.
“The topic of the investigation itself is very serious. The possibility that the investigation is being impeded or tampered with is even worse. That threatens the integrity of our criminal justice system,” the New York Democrat said. “I hope and expect my Republican friends will be joining us in these efforts to make sure this investigation is conducted in the manner it deserves.”
A Schumer aide declined to comment on what steps Democrats planned to take should none of their demands be met. But several members of the minority party said they would develop an aggressive counter-plan should Republicans resist.
“We want to open the door for our Republican colleagues to join us in fighting for the integrity of American elections, American government,” Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said. “I hope they will. Should they choose not to, if they put politics above the integrity of America, then we will … develop a series of strategies to make that point.”
Among the items Democrats would like to see advanced is the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election. That appointment, Schumer said, should come from the highest-ranking career civil servant at the Department of Justice.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said it was unclear why such an action was necessary. He cited the ongoing investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee as a key reason why a special prosecutor was not necessary.
“That [panel] has access to information nobody else has access to, which is the raw intelligence on the Russian active measures campaign,” the Texas Republican told reporters.
Democrats also requested separate Senate briefings with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to discuss the circumstances that led to Comey’s termination, as well as a briefing, in some capacity, with Comey himself.
While Democrats took to the chamber floor to decry the termination, Senate Republicans sought to keep the focus on their effort to repeal and replace the 2010 health care law.
“We were on the front page and suddenly we were eclipsed by the daily events at the White House,” Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander said.
The Tennesee Republican is among the leaders of the effort to draft the Senate version of health care reconciliation legislation.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke about health care on the Senate floor Wednesday before mentioning Comey’s termination, even as Schumer had asked his members to be present for the opening speech by the Kentucky Republican.
“Yesterday, [Democrats] sent me a letter indicating they want to participate as we work on legislation that can bring relief from Obamacare. In that letter, they acknowledged the need to improve and reform the health care system,” McConnell said. “After eight years of defending this failing law and its higher costs, reduced choices and dropped coverage, I’m glad to hear that Senate Democrats are finally willing to concede that the status quo is simply unsustainable.”
Alexander said meetings among Republicans continued.
“Washington has a hard time doing more than one thing at a time, and in the Senate Republican caucus, we’re focused on health care,” Alexander said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.”
Meanwhile, Democrats were successful in largely slowing down much of the scheduled work in the Senate on Wednesday.
The HELP committee postponed a scheduled markup on legislation that would affect the Food and Drug Administration so minority members could attend a caucus meeting on the Comey firing.
Democrats also invoked a rule commonly waived by unanimous consent each day that restricts the time and duration of committee meetings. The use of the two-hour rule wasn’t particularly unique, as both parties have done so from time-to-time as a protest. But the procedure is of limited utility.
Committees frequently reschedule meetings to take place in the morning or, at times, even on days when the Senate floor does not open for business. Alexander’s HELP panel, for example, rescheduled their markup of the FDA legislation for 9:30 a.m. on Thursday to avoid conflicting with that rule.
Democrats have other tools at their disposal though. One obvious opportunity is on the nomination of Rachel L. Brand to be associate attorney general. McConnell filed a cloture motion on Wednesday to limit debate on Brand’s nomination.
Democrats cannot block Brand’s nomination, which is scheduled to reach the floor next week. But given that she is in line to become the third-ranking official at the Department of Justice behind Sessions and Rosenstein, there would be no surprise if Democrats opt for extended speeches against her confirmation.
Cornyn conceded that the minority party could hold up much of the Senate’s work in the coming weeks, but he said he thought Democrats were more focused on optics than on facts.
“If they want to continue to be disruptive, then I guess under the Senate rules, there are ways to do that. My hope is that they eventually decide it is more important to get our work done than just obstruct,” he said.