Senate Republicans sat down for their first lengthy party meeting Wednesday since FBI Director James Comey’s unexpected sacking.
But as the Comey controversy raged outside the stately Mansfield Room and all over cable news, inside their caucus room senators barely uttered a word about it.
Republicans are desperately trying to quarantine the Comey storyline to the Senate Intelligence Committee and work toward their overarching goals of revamping the tax code and health care system. But it may not be as easy to get over as past controversies: Instead of responding to Trump’s tweets or an inflammatory speech, this time the GOP is dealing with Trump’s actions and their rippling repercussions.
The scrums of reporters haranguing senators over Comey reached new highs on Wednesday, creating unwieldy crowds and exasperated senators who kept getting asked the same question. But inside the GOP lunch, the discussion was almost entirely related to repealing Obamacare, a topic that’s difficult enough for Republicans to tackle, senators said. The only mention was a short recitation by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of his position that there should be no special prosecutor investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Moscow.
“Absolutely [Comey’s firing is] important. But in terms of the issues before us, I don’t think it affects us,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.).
For all the Democratic outrage over Comey, Republicans can successfully enact legislation on certain issues, like health care and taxes, if they maintain party unity and abide by strict Senate rules. And that has the GOP thinking it can proceed apace on its agenda.
“The healthcare effort right now is 100 percent Republican. So it’s not really affecting [it],” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). “Issues that you deal with that are done in a bipartisan way, sometimes it has an effect. In this particular case, it’s having zero effect … there was no discussion.”
But now there is renewed focus on the Senate’s slow-moving Russia investigations, the GOP’s resistance to calling for a special prosecutor or select committee and now, the confirmation of a new FBI director, all of which will consume precious time and political capital.
And Republican leadership was unable to shake the Comey storyline; in fact, as McConnell took the floor on Wednesday, dozens of Democrats were staring back at him, hoping for a response to Trump’s decision to fire Comey.
During a factory tour and a business roundtable in Columbus, Ohio Wednesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan’s pitch for tax reform kept getting interrupted by reporters asking questions about the Comey firing. Ryan’s team specifically designed the tour to launch House Republicans’ push to rewrite the tax code. But while he was speaking to local business leaders, Ryan’s Twitter account was lighting up about his lack of response to Comey’s ousting.
And some Republicans fret that all the public attention on Comey is going to bleed into their legislative efforts. Asked if Comey’s dismissal could affect the Senate’s work, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) replied: “I think it already has.”
“Anytime you have a controversy like this, at least in the short-term, it will be a hindrance going forward with legislation — that’s just the reality,” Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) said in an interview. “Yesterday, everyone was talking about health care. Today, all anyone is talking about is Comey and the FBI and Russia.”
Other Republicans insisted their focus on Obamacare is dictated by what they are hearing from their constituents, not the Trump news of the day that roils the Capitol at a pace that’s difficult for lawmakers to keep up with. As Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) put it: “I doubt that any Republican senator, other than talking to media, are gonna sit around talking about what do we do about the FBI.”
“It’s a feeding frenzy in the media and they’re enjoying it,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.). “The media enjoys this a lot more than normal people do.”
But inside the Capitol, there was already evidence that Trump’s firing of Comey — and Republicans’ defense of Trump — was infecting the upper chamber. Senate Democrats wielded their limited procedural leverage on Wednesday and cancelled all hearings after 11:30 a.m., halting much of the Senate’s work for the day. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) came to the Senate floor to declare the episode “another low.”
Republicans don’t believe Democrats can keep objecting to hearings devoted to national security and foreign policy, but Democrats wouldn’t rule out further actions to scuttle the Senate’s daily agenda. And they said that until Republicans agree to an independent investigation, working on bipartisan legislation — which is most of the Senate’s business other than party-line efforts on healthcare and taxes — will be extremely difficult.
“Credibility is a key issue here. Not in this building, but in the public eye,” said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the No. 3 Senate Democrat. “The best way to establish credibility on whatever issues are in front of us is to make sure we have independent people pursuing the questions around Russia.”
Rep. Tom Reed, who leads the bipartisan “No Labels” caucus, tried to downplay the impact Comey’s firing would have on his push for moderate Democrats and centrist Republicans to work together. The New York Republican argued that Comey’s dismissal “is not a partisan issue” and therefore won’t affect the group’s work.
"As Americans, both Republican and Democrat, we all care about a fair and non-politicized examination of the facts and that our principles are protected,” he said.
That, however, may prove to be wishful thinking.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin recently met with more moderate House Democrats in the bipartisan “No Labels” caucus to let them know Trump wants Democrats’ help reforming the tax code. The conversations, people on both sides of the aisle said, were productive, giving hope to the administration that they could work with the left.
But Comey’s firing is likely to cripple the administration’s attempts to woo Democrats to the table on taxes.
“His agenda was on life support already. He just pulled the plug himself,” said a senior Democratic aide of Trump.
Even if bipartisan collaboration is something of a dream right now, Republicans don’t need Democratic support to clinch new healthcare and tax laws, because they are using powerful budget reconciliation procedures that can circumvent Democratic filibusters in the Senate.
But though the House narrowly passed a healthcare bill last week, Senate Republicans are already beginning to bog down in policy disagreements.
Questions about Comey aren’t making efforts to find solutions any easier.
“Health care is tough enough,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).
Seung Min Kim and Jennifer Haberkorn contributed to this report.