The daily drumbeat of developments in the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump may have many Americans wondering: What else is Congress doing?
Republicans accuse Democrats of not doing much else, suggesting legislative action has stalled while witness after witness is called in for testimony in an inquiry the president has called a “hoax” and “deranged.”
Democrats, in turn, argue that the House has been passing legislation for months that goes to die in the “legislative graveyard” led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He doesn’t mind being called the “Grim Reaper,” since he’s killed what he believes are ill-conceived Democratic proposals.
There are discussions on a broad range of issues taking place, along with committee hearings, but not much bipartisan progress to show for it. Among the key matters that members of Congress are addressing — in fits and starts — is the overall federal budget and military spending.
Another government shutdown?
The latest short-term spending measure runs out Nov. 21, and if lawmakers don’t reach an agreement, that could lead to another government shutdown. The longest government shutdown in the country’s history ended earlier this year.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has warned of a possible shutdown in recent weeks. Though he said some progress has been made, this week he again raised his chief concern on the Senate floor.
“If President Trump stays out of it, we will come to an agreement,” he said.
But he cautioned that if the president does get involved, “then we won’t get it done and we may have a second Trump shutdown.”
For his part, McConnell said he’s “beyond frustrated” over an inability to get a final vote to approve the defense bill, the National Defense Authorization Act. He said the Pentagon “suffers mightily under continuing resolutions” like the one that will expire later this month.
Many other Republicans share his frustration and believe the delay is only going to hurt the nation’s military men and women, who are slated to get a 3.1% pay increase.
“This is politics at its worst,” said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. “It seemed for a moment, that despite Democrats’ fixation on partisan politics and impeachment, we could actually go about the business of funding the government — the military — in a somewhat bipartisan fashion.”
But Thune said that was “apparently too much to ask” for Democrats.
In response, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said on the Senate floor on Thursday that Democrats are ready to fund the military. But they won’t go along with the president’s plans to take away billions of defense dollars for the wall along the southern border between the U.S. and Mexico.
“We do not believe that once Congress appropriates money, for a defense budget, the president should be able to use an emergency declaration to just go into the coffers of the Pentagon and cannibalize projects that affect our military families to use for the border wall,” Kaine said.
Lowering prescription drug prices
House Democratic leaders are still pushing ahead with legislation that seeks to lower prescription drug prices.
The legislation, H.R. 3, is being renamed in honor of the late Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who was a longtime advocate of efforts to keep down drug prices.
The proposal would allow Medicare to negotiate for lower drug prices and would apply taxes on drug companies that fail to accept prices linked to those paid in other economically advanced countries.
“It’s unacceptable, and everyday Americans understand this, that they are paying sometimes five or six times as much for the same drug, manufactured in the same location, as people in other developed nations,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.
But the White House recently signaled it won’t go along with the House legislation, instead getting behind a more modest bipartisan proposal in the Senate that’s co-sponsored by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
The Senate bill would set a limit on what senior citizens have to pay out of pocket for medication, but it would not include negotiating by Medicare on drug prices.
The presidential campaign is ramping up and there is no shortage of legislation pending in the House and Senate that seeks to improve election security.
But it remains unclear which proposals will make it to the finish line and become law.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has proposed legislation that would require campaigns to report to the FBI if they have any communications with foreign officials trying to interfere in a presidential election.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., is a co-sponsor of legislation with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., of the DETER Act, which would impose sanctions against Russia or other countries that seek to interfere in U.S. elections.
The House earlier this year passed the SAFE Act, which, among other things, would require backup paper ballots for federal elections. But it hasn’t made any progress in the Senate.
The deadly shootings that claimed 22 lives in El Paso, Texas, and nine lives in Dayton, Ohio, in August led to a lot of discussion about gun control measures, after Congress returned from the summer recess.
Lawmakers have pored over proposals, including universal background checks, shoring up current background check laws and a red-flag law, which would allow family members and law enforcement to ask a judge to temporarily take away firearms from an individual considered at risk of carrying out violence.
Despite getting extensive attention in September, the issue has largely faded away on Capitol Hill.
Even the biggest advocates of gun control measures acknowledge there is now little chance of any new legislation being passed any time soon.
Congress now has a dwindling number of working days to get anything done.
While closed-door hearings in the impeachment inquiry took place this week, the House was in recess. And public hearings in the inquiry are scheduled for next week.
Democratic leaders have avoided committing to a specific timeline related to impeachment proceedings. They also acknowledge the calendar is putting the squeeze on what can get done before the end of the year.
If the House votes on articles of impeachment in December, as now seems likely, the Senate will then have to prepare for a trial of the president. So, while lawmakers continue to work on other issues, it’s clear impeachment is having a major impact on the agenda of the 116th U.S. Congress.