By Chad Pergram, ,
Published April 15, 2017
I’m exhausted. Mentally and physically spent.
I like to think I have a pretty good motor when it comes to reporting on Capitol Hill. I can fully function on just a couple of hours of sleep a night. I’m 48 years old and make it a point to exercise every day. I have run a mile in as little as 6 minutes and 3 seconds in the past several months.
But I’m worn out.
Not from exercise. But from Congress.
In November, it was clear 2017 could be the most tumultuous year on Capitol Hill since 1995. That’s when Republicans seized control of the House for the first time in 40 years and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., rolled out an aggressive legislative agenda to do things differently in Washington. Gingrich pushed the House through his 10-point “Contract with America,” repeatedly challenging President Bill Clinton.
As the late Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., said at the time, it wasn’t the first 100 days which were killing members. It was the “first 100 nights.”
There’s truth to that this time around.
Since the beginning of the year, the Senate has stayed in session around the clock four times. That included a 57 hour and 5 minute stretch in February as Democrats required the body burn off time on various Cabinet nominations.
Just last week, the Senate remained in session for a day-and-a-half as Sen. Jeff Merkley, D0-Oregon, commandeered the floor for 15 hours and 28 minutes to contest the nomination of now confirmed Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.
The GOP-majority Senate twice this year met at 6:30 a.m. Once was for a vote to halt debate on the nomination of now Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Both parties are to blame for the hectic schedule. Notably, Democrats deployed all parliamentary options available on many of President Trump’s Cabinet nominations. That forced the Senate to consume inordinate chunks of time afforded the minority party under the rules.
The Senate voted to confirm Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price just after 2 a.m. ET one morning, then held an additional procedural vote on the nomination of Steve Mnuchin to become Treasury secretary.
The wild pace started even before the 115th Congress convened on January 3.
On the night of January 2, House Republicans approved a rules change to de-fang the quasi-governmental “Office of Congressional Ethics.”
By morning, House Republicans realized they had a public relations disaster on their hands worthy of United Airlines. The body was just hours away from taking one of the first votes of the Congress to undercut an ethics watchdog.
Ten minutes before the new Congress gaveled to order, leader of the GOP-controlled House convened an emergency conference meeting to abandon the effort to deaden the ethic’s office.
Inauguration Day is always a crazy one in Washington. Many who toil on Capitol Hill arrive well before dawn for work. But by dark on this Inauguration Day, the Senate was in the middle of roll call votes to confirm Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Defense Secretary James Mattis. A brouhaha erupted over Democrats demanding debate on the nomination of CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
Vice President Pence visits the Capitol continuously to meet with Republicans -- mostly about trying to solve the puzzle of repealing and replacing ObamaCare. Many of Pence’s meetings come at night. Two of them last week didn’t start until after 8:30 p.m. ET.
Pence had to vote to break a tie to confirm DeVos, marking the first time that a vice president did such to confirm a Cabinet secretary. Two weeks ago, Pence broke two ties in one day on an abortion-related measure. No vice president had broken two ties in a single day since Alben Barkley on Oct. 4, 1949.
So, three tie-breaking votes for Pence in less than three months in office. Prior to the DeVos vote, Vice President Dick Cheney broke the last Senate tie, on March 13, 2008, on a budget package. Vice President Joe Biden never cast a ballot to break a tie.
Congressional Republicans don’t have a lot to show for their efforts so far this year. Perhaps the only major achievement they scored was the Gorsuch confirmation.
Still, Democrats filibustered the nomination -- a first for a Supreme Court nominee. In turn, Senate Republicans were forced to deploy the nuclear option, a striking change in Senate precedent to lower the threshold to break a filibuster on a high court nominees.
Offstage, there’s political wrestling over health care. Republicans in late March yanked a plan off the floor engineered by House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
They first pushed back the vote by a day, eliciting an evening convocation at the Capitol (of course) between House Republicans and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, top White House adviser Steve Bannon and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney.
The evening huddle with House Republicans naturally produced a 7 a.m. meeting the next day of the House Rules Committee to prepare the health care legislation for the floor. By mid-afternoon, the legislation was toast and the effort was all for naught.
Congress last week abandoned Washington for an 18-day recess. But there was chatter the House could reconvene on an emergency notice if they thought they were close on a health care deal. A senior House GOP leadership source told Fox before the break that wouldn’t happen until the end of the recess -- and only if they were confident they had the votes.
Then House Republicans announced they would hold a conference call next Saturday with rank-and-file members. Ryan left Washington for a bipartisan trip to Europe to meet with NATO allies, though it was said the speaker was prepared to return if they had a deal.
Trump long ago said he was dropping health care and turning to tax reform. But, that’s not the case now.
“I think we're doing very well on health care,” Trump said in an interview with Fox Business. “It's been very much misreported that we failed with health care. We haven't failed. We're negotiating, and we continue to negotiate. And we will save perhaps $900 billion.”
The whiplash …
Of course, it would only be par for the course if Congress cuts short the recess. Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution enables presidents to summon Congress back to session for “extraordinary” circumstances.
No president has used that authority since Truman in 1948. Among the issues then? Debate on a national health care system.
Obviously that didn’t go over too well …
Among the other bizarre things that unfolded on Capitol Hill this year? A routine car chase that devolved into an incident in which U.S. Capitol Police shot at the suspect to stop as she sped past the Rayburn House Office Building.
There was the contretemps over Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., during the debate on whether then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., should become attorney general. Warren quoted the words of Coretta Scott King during her speech opposing Sessions. Warren read from a document that was inserted into the Congressional Record in the 1980s.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, found Warren’s words to be “a violation of Rule XIX of the Standing Rules of the Senate to impute another senator, or senator’s conduct or motive unbecoming a senator.”
The Senate then voted to mute Warren for the rest of the debate on Sessions’ nomination. The Senate hadn’t stifled a senator since it sanctioned Sen. William Benton, D-Conn., for his language in the chamber on February 1, 1951.
We haven’t even addressed the Russia intelligence probe. That’s to say nothing of the controversial move by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., to clandestinely head to the White House to view certain classified materials regarding Trump.
Nunes stepped aside from the Russia probe on the last day of the session. GOP Reps. Michael Conaway, Texas; Tom Rooney, Florida, and Trey Gowdy, South Carolina, will now lead the investigation. Of course that all unfolded the same day as the nuclear option for Gorsuch. But by dinner time, neither Nunes nor the nuclear option was much news.
That’s because Trump ordered airstrikes against Syria.
Now there’s a debate as to whether Congress should approve an authorization for U.S. military action in Syria. There’s bipartisan support for such a resolution in both chambers. Expect the Syria issue to be front and center when Congress returns to session the week after next. That is, after the House continues work on health care. And then, another sprint through the week to try to avoid a government shutdown by April 28.
That debate usually goes swimmingly…
No wonder everyone’s exhausted.