House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is desperate to have her new Democratic majority in the House be defined by something other than impeachment.
As Congress returns Tuesday from a two-week vacation, she and her troops will face that question head-on, with Democrats increasingly agitating for the impeachment route and President Trump and fellow Republicans saying that will squelch any chances at doing big bipartisan deals on legislation.
On tap over the next six weeks are bills to fund the government in fiscal year 2020 — which began Oct. 1, but which is currently being covered under an emergency stopgap bill.
Mrs. Pelosi would also like to see action on gun control, while Republicans say a better chance for bipartisanship is approving the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal Mr. Trump already negotiated, but which Democrats have blocked from a final vote.
Yet nine months into the new era of divided government, the smart money would have to go to more gridlock.
Mrs. Pelosi’s new Democratic majority has little to show for itself. Its biggest accomplishments so far are ending a government shutdown at the beginning of the year, and managing to avoid another one earlier this month.
Congress did also clear a border spending bill that helped alleviate overcrowded conditions at Customs and Border Protection facilities.
But far more attention has been spent on pursuing investigations against Mr. Trump, with subpoenas and oversight hearings proving as popular as passing bills.
“Unfortunately, the Democrats have been preoccupied since November 2018 with overturning the results of the 2016 elections,” said Mike McKenna, a strategist who advises Republicans on legislation. “Hate takes up a lot of mindshare and energy.”
Mrs. Pelosi, aware of the dangers of being seen as the impeachment Congress, has spent months pleading with her lawmakers to talk about their legislative agenda rather than their investigative efforts back in their districts.
She’s also sought to give them things to talk about.
Last month she announced a new push to try to lower prescription drug prices by giving the federal government a broader role in negotiating the price paid. A vote is expected in coming weeks.
The legislation could shave hundreds of billions off the budget over the next decade and help bring what Americans pay for drugs in line with the rest of the world — but it could also stymy development of new drugs, the Congressional Budget Office calculated.
Donald Wolfensberger, senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said as much as Mrs. Pelosi wants to talk legislation, she’s running into a press corps far more interested in impeachment.
Mrs. Pelosi hasn’t helped matters. When she kicked off a press conference two weeks ago she said she was there foremost to talk about bills — but she brought with her Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House intelligence committee, who at this point is spearheading her new impeachment inquiry.
“Let’s face it — the media is rather obsessed on the whole impeachment thing. That gets a lot of play,” said Mr. Wolfensberger, who is the former director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
And whatever legislation Democrats do pass through the House must survive the Senate, where the GOP is in control and where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has batted away Mrs. Pelosi’s partisan bills.
Mr. Wolfensberger said it appears the Kentucky Republican is intent on making sure Mrs. Pelosi doesn’t get credit for any big bills.
“The House is churning out quite a few important bills but they’re going nowhere in the Senate,” he said.
The stalemate is all the more striking because divided government used to be when big deals got done. Welfare reform and balanced budgets emerged when the GOP held Congress and President Clinton, a Democrat, was in the White House.
And in 1983, with Democrats in control of the House, then-Speaker Tip O’Neill reached a deal with President Reagan, a Republican, to put Social Security on firm footing for decades.
Mr. Wolfensberger said not to expect those sorts of deals now because, for one thing, Mr. Trump isn’t sending up major legislative packages to Capitol Hill.
And Mr. McKenna offered another reason: the strained budget.
“Money tends to be the lubricant of large, complex legislative deals,” he said. “There really isn’t much money left to spend. So it’s a lot more difficult to buy off people, groups, and interests.”
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