Congress Hard at Work Amid Coronavirus Shutdowns

It is eerily quiet today on Capitol Hill. With each passing day there are fewer and fewer reporters and staffers present. Press galleries that typically are overflowing with reporters by 10 am are almost vacant. I’d say only 5% to 10% of the normal number of reporters are here.

Senate Republicans and the administration are busy crafting the “phase three” coronavirus bill. While phases one and two focused primarily (though not exclusively) on health care matters, the third bill will focus on economic stimulus. What that will look like is tough to say. Senate Republicans are taking the lead on this one, as opposed to phase two, which House Dems and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin crafted. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has shut out Democrats during this process, saying that is the most efficient way to get a bill done. That may end up biting him later, as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) definitely has some ideas on what he wants included. Continue reading “Congress Hard at Work Amid Coronavirus Shutdowns”

Coronavirus Crisis Hits the Capitol

The coronavirus crisis has absolutely dominated discussion and action in Congress this week. Lawmakers typically have a one-track mind, focusing solely on one major issue at a time before zooming on to the next. But Capitol Hill’s laser-focus on the coronavirus this week has been at a different level, as barely anything else was discussed by lawmakers and the press corps. Other issues in the past 15 or so years have come close to the sense of urgency felt at the Capitol, such as the impeachment trial of President Trump earlier this year, the confirmation hearing of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018, the government shutdown in 2013 and various Obamacare debates. But those didn’t have the immediate life-or-death component that the coronavirus does. Only Congress’ response to the financial crisis in the fall of 2008 can compare.

That’s not to say there’s a sense of panic on Capitol Hill. There isn’t – at least not yet. But the urgency of the situation seems to have sobered up lawmakers a bit. They know this is one issue they can’t botch, though there are no guarantees they won’t botch it. But they understand there are no do-overs this time. Continue reading “Coronavirus Crisis Hits the Capitol”

Congress Goes Slow on Coronavirus Response

An economic stimulus program from Congress definitely won’t be ready for a few weeks, despite hopes in financial markets for some sort of government aid to cushion the blow of the worsening coronavirus pandemic. Congress is on recess next week. And they haven’t even started to draft a stimulus package, as there are so many moving parts and Republicans still haven’t gotten clear marching orders from the White House. Continue reading “Congress Goes Slow on Coronavirus Response”

Congress Confronts Coronavirus, Wrestles With Domestic Surveillance

Few things can bring hyperpartisan Capitol Hill together, but a potential pandemic is definitely one of them. Lawmakers yesterday responded with surprising speed – at least for them – and reached consensus on an $8.3 billion emergency coronavirus funding package. The House approved the bill with an overwhelming 415-2 vote, with the Senate easily passing the measure by a tally of 96-1. The package includes money for state and local health agencies, vaccine and treatment development, and loans for affected small businesses. The funding total is more than triple the amount initially requested by President Trump, who will sign the bill as soon as it reaches his deck.

The eventual cost of combating the virus likely will be higher, as the last thing lawmakers want is for constituents to accuse them of not doing everything possible to keep the public safe. Continue reading “Congress Confronts Coronavirus, Wrestles With Domestic Surveillance”

Congress Talks Coronavirus, Surveillance, 2020

It was a bit of a slow week on Capitol Hill, as the House didn’t start work in earnest until Wednesday while the Senate took the day off. But there was still a buzz in the Capitol about how best to respond to the coronavirus, a topic that dominated the minds of lawmakers and reporters.

There was significant pushback from both parties to President Trump’s request for $2.5 billion to combat the virus. Most of the concerns, not surprisingly, came from Democrats, who decried the figure as too low and who characterized the administration’s response as too slow and disorganized. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) wants $8.5 billion, pointing out that Congress appropriated more than $6 billion to guard against a global pandemic flu in 2006 and more than $7 billion for the H1N1 flu in 2009. Continue reading “Congress Talks Coronavirus, Surveillance, 2020”

Can Bernie Sanders Claim the Nomination?

Can Bernie Sanders win the Democratic nomination? The short answer is yes. The socialist senator from Vermont has emerged as the party’s front-runner after narrowly losing Iowa and narrowly winning New Hampshire.

Most polls indicate he’s well on his way to victory in Nevada, the next primary contest. (Though like Iowa, Nevada is a caucus state, so prepare to be surprised.) Continue reading “Can Bernie Sanders Claim the Nomination?”

Trump’s Shadow Looms Large on Capitol Hill

With the impeachment inquiry and trial of President Trump in the rear view mirror, it’s back to business as usual on Capitol Hill. That means the House passing Democratic-crafted bills that will go nowhere in the Republican-controlled Senate while the upper chamber continues to approve Trump-nominated judges but steering clear of much else.

But congressional lawmakers just can’t escape the Trump Show, no matter how much they want to (and they desperately do, both Democrats and Republicans).

Two controversial post-impeachment moves by President Trump rattled Capitol Hill this week: His dismissal of two top government officials who testified in the House’s impeachment inquiry, and the Justice Department’s abrupt reversal of a sentencing recommendation for long-time Trump ally Roger Stone after the president publicly complained it was too harsh. The moves forced Republicans to awkwardly respond to press questions while handing Democrats ammunition to accuse Trump of going rogue.

Critics say Trump’s decision to oust Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a decorated soldier and national security aide, and Gordon Sondland, Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, was nothing more than payback for two officials who played a central role in the Democrats’ impeachment case.

It was “a clear and obvious act of retaliation… against witnesses who told the truth under oath,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). “How vindictive, how petty, how nasty.”

But some staunch Trump supporters on Capitol Hill said the president was well within his right to oust officials he deems disloyal.

“It amazes me the lack of empathy, at least on one side of the (partisan) aisle, for a president who doesn’t know who to trust,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI.) “And from my standpoint, you sure can’t trust Vindman inside the administration. I’m actually surprised the president took that long” to dismiss him.

Not all Republicans shared Johnson’s view.

“While I certainly recognize that the president has the right to choose his own staff and his own ambassadors, I’m concerned about what appears to be retaliation against the individuals who’ve been removed,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), who voted last week to acquit the president in the Senate’s impeachment trial.

Collins said that when she learned the president was going to remove Vindman and Sondland from their posts, she called the White House “to try to prevent the action.”

Trump’s handling of the Stone case presented Republicans with an equally tricky messaging challenge, though most tried to avoid directly confronting the president on the issue. Some shrugged it off. Others, like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), simply refused to answer questions about the Stone situation.

Even Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), who has been hammered by Trump and the conservative media for his vote to convict the president, was wary about weighing in.

“I’m not going to comment on the president’s tweets,” Romney said. “If I commented on all the tweets that I disagreed with, it would be a full-time job.”

The Utah senator did add, however, that while he hopes the president didn’t try to influence the Justice Department’s decision regarding Stone, “the appearance (of influence) is unfortunate.”

As if things couldn’t get any tenser at the Capitol, a pair of Senate Republican chairmen are steaming ahead with investigations related to the Bidens and Ukraine. 

Johnson, who heads the Homeland Security Committee, and Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa, have ramped up their requests for documents and interviews related to work done by former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter for Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company.

Johnson told reporters that he’s not launching a politically driven witch hunt against the Bidens.

“What I’ve seen in the press is like, ‘Oh, now all of a sudden we’re targeting the Bidens,’” the Wisconsinite said. “From my standpoint, I’m not. This is just part and parcel of all this oversight that I want to conclude so the American people understand what happened.”

“I have so many unanswered questions… From my standpoint this is a very even-handed approach.”

All in all, another typical week on Capitol Hill.

Heard on the Hill

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on post-impeachment reflections:

“The Senate did its job. We protected the long-term future of our Republic. We kept the temporary fires of factionalism from burning through to the bedrock of our institutions.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) on the current field of Democratic presidential candidates:

“I think that no matter what, we’re going to have to unify under the nominee. There will always be concerns about party unity, no matter who it is…  There is no one candidate that is going to defeat Donald Trump. It needs to be a movement of Americans and everyone coming together.”

Post-Impeachment Hangover to Linger Over Capitol Hill

While the impeachment trial of President Trump is over, its shadow will linger over Capitol Hill indefinitely. Among its legacies will be a further erosion of across-the-aisle cooperation, comity and trust. If you’re hoping for a kumbaya moment between the parties, don’t hold your breath.

Congress already was bedeviled by toxic partisanship long before impeachment or Trump’s presidency. In 21st Century Washington, lawmakers view members of the other party as rivals, not coworkers elected by the American people to work together to make the country a better place. Bipartisanship is often considered a dirty word on Capitol Hill. Continue reading “Post-Impeachment Hangover to Linger Over Capitol Hill”

Trump Impeachment Trial Nears Its End Game

Opinions and positions die hard on Capitol Hill. So, after eight gruelling and mostly long days of the Senate impeachment trial of President Trump, few if any minds among the senators – and probably the public as well – have changed.

Day after day, lawmakers of both parties continue to recite the same talking points, the same positions, the same partisan rhetoric as they did on the trial’s opening day a week ago Tuesday. Continue reading “Trump Impeachment Trial Nears Its End Game”

Senate Goes Back To Middle School For Impeachment Trial

There are a lot of similarities between the Senate and middle school. The inhabitants of both sit at small, cramped desks; both have a heightened sense of self-importance; and both aren’t afraid to bend (or break) the rules if they think they can get away with it.

Case in point: During the Senate impeachment trial of President Trump, senators are supposed to adhere to a rather strict set of rules meant to keep the decorum of “the world’s greatest deliberative body” intact while allowing the proceedings on the floor to run smoothly. The rules, most of which don’t apply when the Senate is in normal session, require senators to remain seated and silent during the trial. Electronic devices, including cell phones, laptops and tablets, are prohibited inside the chamber. And senators are not allowed to eat or drink anything but water when the trial is in session. The one exception is milk (yes, milk). Continue reading “Senate Goes Back To Middle School For Impeachment Trial”