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Congress returns to confront impeachment, infrastructure and much more

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) speaks during the during the TIME 100 Summit on Tuesday, April 23, 2019, in New York.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) speaks during the during the TIME 100 Summit on Tuesday, April 23, 2019, in New York. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

Congress returns Monday with House Democrats split over impeaching President Trump while lawmakers of both parties scramble to deliver disaster relief and confront the possibility that Washington might finally get serious about infrastructure.

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election will drive internal Democratic politics, as lawmakers wrestle with whether to investigate or launch impeachment proceedings after Mueller found 10 instances of potential obstruction of justice by the president.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who has argued against impeachment, faces the tough task of preventing the loud calls to impeach from turning into a groundswell that Democratic leaders fear will overwhelm their agenda ahead of the 2020 election.

Pelosi, in a letter to colleagues Friday, made no mention of the Mueller report, focusing instead on legislation slated for upcoming House votes — on protecting young undocumented immigrants from deportation, lowering the cost of prescription drugs, addressing climate change and barring gender discrimination. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called impeachment "one of the most divisive paths that we can go down," and that Congress will see where the investigation goes. (Video: AP)

She contrasted the legislative lineup in her chamber with that of the Senate, which has spent much of the first part of the year on judges and other nominees, and where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has vowed to stop the Democratic-crafted legislation.

“Leader McConnell has declared himself the ‘grim reaper’ of these House bills to make progress for working families,” Pelosi said. “We will show him that these bills are alive and well with the American people. The middle class and America don’t want the Senate to be a legislative graveyard for so many of these important issues — they want action.”

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found that most Americans oppose starting impeachment proceedings, though Democrats are in favor by a 2-to-1 margin. But many Democratic lawmakers said Mueller’s findings were hardly a top topic at dozens of town halls during the two-week congressional recess, with voters instead focused on climate change, health care and other issues. 

Still, the report will be front and center on Capitol Hill this week as Attorney General William P. Barr faces questions about his interpretation of the report — and its contradictions with Mueller’s findings — when he testifies before the Judiciary committees in the Senate and House midweek.

Even before his slated Thursday appearance in the House, tensions between Barr and Judiciary Democrats were reaching a boiling point. Justice Department officials threatened Friday that Barr may ditch the hearing entirely because he disapproved of the hearing format.

Judiciary Committee aides said Barr should be prepared for a private session following his public testimony, to discuss redacted portions of the Mueller report. Democratic aides also want their lawyers to have a chance to question Barr.

Justice officials, however, balked at those demands. 

Meanwhile, Democrats continued to grapple with questions of whether they should initiate impeachment proceedings. Speaking on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.), a member of the Judiciary panel, said he would support such a move — though he deferred to leadership to make the final call. 

“I think [impeachment is] the best way to get all of the facts out,” Richmond said, arguing that he wants Trump put under oath to answer questions. “But, look, my sole focus right now is to make sure that he’s not the president next term.”

House Democrats will be otherwise confronted with a contradiction this week as Trump, on one hand, refuses to cooperate with their probes into his administration — leaving them to consider next steps, such as potential contempt citations — while he, on the other hand, is set to host Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) at an Oval Office meeting Tuesday to discuss infrastructure.

All three leaders must determine quickly in the coming weeks whether there is any potential in the highly polarized climate for bipartisan legislating, whether on infrastructure or on reducing prescription drug prices, before the pressures of the 2020 elections make any compromise impossible.

A major piece of unfinished business for Congress is a disaster aid bill that would distribute more than $13 billion for natural disasters across the country, including wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The legislation has been pending in one form or another since last year but has gotten hung up in a fight between Trump and Democrats over how much aid to send to Puerto Rico, with Trump resisting Democrats’ efforts to provide large new infusions as the island continues a slow recovery from Hurricane Maria in 2017. 

Negotiations to resolve the impasse have been fitful and the outlook is uncertain. There is a strong desire among lawmakers of both parties to reach a deal, but also increasingly bitter acrimony on both sides about how the dispute has played out.

House Democrats plan to move forward next week with their own $17.2 billion disaster aid bill, which includes additional money for flood-ravaged parts of the Midwest, but House passage of that legislation is unlikely to unlock the impasse in the Senate. 

However, Trump met with key Republican senators just before the congressional recess began and indicated a desire to find a path forward, creating some basis for hope for a resolution. 

The bitter dispute over the disaster bill has also led to fretting on Capitol Hill over whether Congress and the administration will be able to reach agreement on the much more significant fiscal fights that loom in coming months, including the need to raise the debt ceiling and pass new spending bills before current government funding runs out Sept. 30. 

The administration has recently been signaling a desire for quick action on the debt ceiling, which must be lifted by September or October to allow the country to continue to meet its obligations. At the same time, McConnell announced that bipartisan, bicameral negotiations would begin toward reaching a budget deal. But those talks are taking place on the staff level and are off to a slow start. 

House Democrats plan to start moving forward in coming days with the first of the 12 annual spending bills that fund the government, beginning with the massive Labor-Health and Human Services-Education bill, which is certain to spark partisan friction because of policy provisions related to guns and abortion. 

But House Democrats are contending with divisions in their own ranks between liberals who want more domestic and less military spending, and fiscal hawks concerned about higher spending levels generally, which forced leaders to cancel a planned vote this month on a two-year spending deal. 

Continuing with a string of measures that rebuke the Trump administration, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) announced plans for a vote this week on a measure that would reverse Trump’s decision to withdraw from the United Nations climate accord known as the Paris agreement. It stops well short, however, of the ambitious Green New Deal provisions favored by many Democrats.

Besides Barr’s appearances before the House and Senate Judiciary panels, other high-profile hearings are on tap for the week. 

Homeland Security official Kevin McAleenan is set to make his first appearance as acting secretary Tuesday before a House Appropriations subcommittee — one that could detour away from budgetary matters and toward the Trump administration’s border policy. Acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan will also face a House budget hearing on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, the House Rules Committee will hold a hearing on Medicare-for-all legislation — marking the first time Democrats have used their majority to highlight an issue dear to their liberal base. Also on Tuesday, a House Judiciary subcommittee will hold a hearing on the Equal Rights Amendment, focusing on how to restart a ratification process that stalled in the late 1970s. Actress Patricia Arquette is among those set to testify.

The Senate, meanwhile, is set to continue confirming Trump nominees, including five district judges. Also on tap for confirmation is Gordon Hartogensis, nominee for director of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. and brother-in-law to McConnell.

Senators also will attempt — and most likely fail — to override Trump’s veto of a resolution to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen’s civil war. Only 54 senators, seven of them Republicans, backed the effort to pass the resolution — a far cry from the two-thirds needed to challenge Trump’s veto.

But the bigger question is what comes next. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman James E. Risch (R-Idaho) has signaled that he is open to doing something to address the October killing of Saudi journalist and Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, which the CIA determined was ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. But Risch has yet to endorse any effort on offer.

Karoun Demirjian and Rachael Bade contributed to this report.

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