Congress adrift in aftermath of impeachment trial
WASHINGTON — Inside the Capitol, it’s as if the impeachment of President Donald Trump never happened.
One week after the historic undertaking shuttered to a close, Congress is feverishly back at work emboldened but also arguably diminished by the outcome.
Senate Republicans are flexing their new status as Trump’s unshakable allies, hitching their election pursuits to his and looking the other away as the president seems to dole out favoritism for friends and payback for critics with apparent impunity. They’re back to confirming record numbers of judicial nominees viewing impeachment politically as a net gain.
“We won and they lost,” declared Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
House Democrats are frantically reviving their kitchen-table agenda of health care and pocketbook priorities, a direct appeal to voters after spending the past months focused on erecting a firewall against potential wrongdoing by the president.
What has become clear in the aftermath of the impeachment proceedings is the stark realization that the legislative branch can only carry the country so far as a check on the executive. It’s now up to voters to decide.
The outcome leaves Congress adrift, its legislative agenda uncertain, its oversight role challenged. Both parties are in flux as the nation’s political energy turns toward the presidential primaries ahead of the November election, when voters will also decide control of the House and Senate.
“Everything is at stake in November,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the Democratic caucus chairman, as he implored Americans to prepare to vote “as if your life depends on it.”
Democrats warn that Trump, far from having learned lessons from becoming the third impeached president, is in fact engaged in an escalating pattern of retribution and political favoritism that started as soon as he was acquitted by the Senate.
In a matter of days, the White House reassigned an Army officer, Lt. Col. Alex Vindman, a key witness in the impeachment inquiry, from the National Security Council, and pushed his twin brother, a council lawyer, out with him. Ambassador Gordon Sondland was recalled from his post.
Then, Trump tweeted it was “very unfair” that associate Roger Stone was being recommended for up to nine years in prison after being convicted of witness tampering, obstruction and lying to Congress in the Russia probe. The Justice Department swiftly backed off, four government prosecutors withdrew from the case and the White House nixed the nomination of Jessie Liu, the supervising attorney, who was in line for a Treasury post.
On Wednesday, Sen. Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer called on the Justice Department’s inspector general to look into the matter. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., agreed there needs to be an investigation.
“What we are witnessing is a crisis in the rule of law in America,” Schumer said.
“Republicans thought the president would learn his lesson. The lesson the president learned was that the Republican Party will not hold him accountable no matter how egregious his behavior,” he said.
Some Republicans who indicated the president might temper his behavior acknowledged Wednesday the limits.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said, “There haven’t been very strong indicators this week that he has.”
“I said before that I would hope that the president would learn from that experience,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. “The president is his own person, and I’m my own person, and you can judge whether you think he has.”
Asked if the president has learned any lessons from impeachment, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said: “He seems the same as he did two weeks ago.”
Democrats, though, are displaying only tepid enthusiasm for digging deeper into Trump’s alleged wrongdoings after the Senate voted last week to acquit him of the charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress in the Ukraine matter.
Privately, Democrats say there is little expectation the House will issue a subpoena for John Bolton, the former national security adviser whose forthcoming book holds fresh revelations about Trump’s pressure on Ukraine to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden that was central to the impeachment charges.
Attorney General William Barr is scheduled to testify before the House Judiciary Committee in late March, it was announced Wednesday.
But at a House hearing, Democrats declined to grill budget director Russell Vought, a key White House figure in Trump’s Ukraine effort. He had defied a congressional subpoena in the impeachment inquiry, but appeared Wednesday to discuss the budget.
Otherwise, House Democrats are returning their focus to the health care, infrastructure and oversight issues that helped bring them to the House majority, and they hope in November will keep them in power.
“We certainly still have an oversight role to play,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., a progressive caucus leader. “But what that looks like exactly is difficult to know.”
Republicans, meanwhile, have a Senate calendar full of more confirmation votes on Trump’s judicial nominees – poised to reach 200 federal judges since the start of his presidency in a matter of days.
At a private lunch with GOP senators this week, Vice President Mike Pence extolled the nation’s economic numbers and faced hardly any criticisms, senators said.
Senate Republicans who were eager during the impeachment proceedings to launch their own investigations into Ukraine and Joe Biden now are unclear on next steps.
Instead, a bipartisan group with Sens. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., announced Wednesday it will travel again to Ukraine to shore up relations as the ally confronts Russian aggression.
Meanwhile, there’s a push from both parties for legislation to lower prescription drug prices and to rein in surprise medical bills, which are campaign priorities. There’s an energy bill in the Senate and lands bills in the House.
Those are all legislative longshots in an election year, but perhaps better than the alternative, which is spending their days in the Capitol as many did Wednesday answering questions about Trump in the White House.
One Democrat, Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, opened a Banking Committee hearing with the Federal Reserve Board chairman to register his concerns about the post-impeachment environment.
“So many senators said we know he’ll get better, we know the president has learned something from this,” Brown told reporters later. “We know if they don’t call him out, it will get worse.”
Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick, Matthew Daly, Andrew Taylor and Padmananda Rama contributed to this report.