The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Add risk of government shutdown to impeachment and other legislative logjams

President Trump pauses as he speaks with astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch from the White House as they conduct the first all-female spacewalk on Friday.
President Trump pauses as he speaks with astronauts Jessica Meir and Christina Koch from the White House as they conduct the first all-female spacewalk on Friday. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Congress is heading toward a multicar collision that could leave a lot of collateral damage if lawmakers aren’t careful.

So much of the current political oxygen is being sucked up by the House’s impeachment inquiry into President Trump’s actions related to his effort to pressure Ukraine into investigating his domestic political rivals. But the list of must-do items between now and year’s end is long and expansive, touching on every aspect of the federal government and beyond.

Chances for a government shutdown before Thanksgiving once seemed impossible but, with no progress reported on any of the 12 spending bills, the risk grows each week of a showdown that would be far more sweeping than the 35-day partial shutdown earlier this year. But many other laws are expiring or lapsing, from some foreign surveillance laws to the potential reinstatement of a very unpopular tax on medical devices.

The rational minds in Washington — yes, there still are quite a few — see each of these issues as separate and distinct from the House’s potential impeachment of Trump. But the president has increasingly demonstrated the past few weeks that he regularly sees issues as one large negotiation, linking together seemingly disconnected threads into one massive ball of legislative wax.

Republicans criticize House impeachment process — while fully participating in probe

His blowup with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Wednesday at a White House meeting about the unfolding crisis in northern Syria clearly had undertones of her push to impeach Trump in the House later this year. His rally in Dallas on Thursday night turned into a greatest hits parade of issues he has long pushed (border wall funding) and grievances against his political enemies (Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee).

By Friday, at a photo opportunity supposedly promoting the first all-female spacewalk, Trump took a reporter’s question about his acting chief of staff’s conflicting answers about Ukraine security aid and turned it into a montage of ongoing crises. Trump discussed his talks with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, about a pause on attacking Kurds in northern Syria, railed against the Schiff-led investigation and claimed to have “taken control” of oil in the Middle East.

All that leaves congressional leaders fearful that any of these must-pass bills could turn into a hostage situation if Trump sees it as possible leverage against impeachment.

“We are proceeding on our legislative agenda, what we told the people we would do,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said Thursday. “We have done a lot to date on making sure that we’ve addressed wages, we did the minimum wage bill.”

Here’s a list of must-pass items, as maintained by a political intelligence firm, Cowen Washington Research Group:

●The National Defense Authorization Act, which sets Pentagon policy and has been approved every year since 1946.

●The 12 bills that fund all federal agencies, which expired Oct. 1 but have been given a temporary extension until Nov. 21.

●A collection of tax breaks, from the health-care industry to paid family leave, will expire Dec. 31.

●A World Trade Organization appellate body will cease to exist.

And this doesn’t even include ongoing efforts to approve a new North American trade pact that is the president’s highest priority and for which Pelosi has been expressing optimism of late, although both sides agree that waiting too far into next year will probably torpedo its chances of passing during an election year.

The most obvious obstacle created by impeachment is simply time. The House schedule already has two week-long breaks between now and Christmas, leaving fewer than 30 planned days to be in session, and quite a few of those planned days are actually half-days to allow for travel to or from Washington.

Once the initial phase of the impeachment investigation is complete, Schiff’s committee would most likely send some report or recommendations to the Judiciary Committee, which traditionally handles articles of impeachment, and then that panel would vote out whichever articles it wanted the full House to consider.

Pelosi then has to figure out when to hold the debate for the full House, and that process would almost certainly take a full week, or longer, to handle. For now she is not making a deadline for when the process would play out, although most insiders believe it should be complete by early February, when voters start casting ballots in the 2020 presidential primary.

“The path — the timeline will depend on the truth line,” Pelosi told reporters Thursday.

Democrats’ impeachment gamble paying off in court of public opinion — for now

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has indicated that if the House votes to impeach before or right after Thanksgiving, he would like to use those next several weeks before Christmas to hold a trial. By rule, an impeachment trial begins each day in the Senate just after lunch, six days a week.

Technically, there would be a couple of hours each morning to process legislation, but it would have to be pretty noncontroversial bills that would get widespread agreement so the usual long procedural votes and debate time could be waived or shortened.

Otherwise, there will be little time in December for the Senate to consider major legislation, if an impeachment trial happens then.

Some of the must-pass legislation will provide potential for side confrontations with Trump. The House has approved its share of the federal spending bills with several restrictions on the administration, including a prohibition on federal money that would have gone toward the now-canceled Group of Seven meeting at Trump’s Florida resort.

A Democratic amendment in the House-passed version of the Pentagon policy bill includes stricter sanctions on Russia for election interference, an issue that has always irked Trump.

If things go completely sideways in the Trump-Congress relationship, even easy-to-pass measures might run into trouble. The 2017 tax bill, for instance, included $17 billion worth of tax breaks that will expire at year’s end, including the paid family leave measure and legislation that ended a tax on medical devices that was originally imposed in the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

Under normal circumstances, those popular credits would just be extended, but nothing seems normal in the current environment. After Wednesday’s blowup between Trump and Pelosi, the Cowen group’s analysts warned their clients that anything could happen.

“From a domestic political perspective, yesterday events in Washington are likely to cast a negative pall over the remainder of the year,” the Cowen analysts wrote Thursday morning.

By week’s end, the pall had grown only more negative.

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