One by one, Republican lawmakers stepped to the microphone and talked about the topic that was not consuming Washington on Tuesday morning: overhauling the health-care system.
One committee chairman declared that Republican lawmakers were “working on solutions” to replace and repeal the Affordable Care Act. Another chairman was more cautious, explaining that Republicans were “taking our time” to “get it right.” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan spoke on each side of the issue, saying both that the health-care system is “collapsing” and needs a “rescue,” and promising a “step-by-step approach” leading to a “stable transition.”
It’s a sign of just how surreal things have become in the early days of the Trump administration that six GOP lawmakers preferred to discuss health care, the very thing that has bitterly divided them since the 2016 elections, than the more pressing news of the day: the resignation barely 11 hours earlier of President Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, after a questionable phone call with a Russian official before Trump became president.
Republicans tried to avoid that 800-pound gorilla in the room, but they didn’t entirely succeed. Ryan fielded questions from just four reporters, in less than three minutes, all regarding Flynn or Trump, and left.
“I’ll leave it up to the administration to describe the circumstances surrounding what brought [Flynn] to this point,” Ryan (R-Wis.) said.
Four hours later, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) faced a similar onslaught at his leadership team’s weekly briefing, exiting the podium after three of the first four questions were related to Trump.
The controversies affecting the Trump White House are consuming Capitol Hill, distracting from the GOP agenda and pulling the party’s congressional leaders into a daily vortex of new charges and countercharges regarding Trump’s latest actions, from the firing of Flynn, to the president’s most recent tweet or his controversial ban barring people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.
“It sucks the oxygen out of the room, it really does,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told the large group of reporters who surrounded him after the Tuesday Senate GOP luncheon. “We should be talking about replacing Obamacare. We should be talking about tax reform, and we are talking about it, but that’s not the issue that is dominating the news, obviously.”
The Trump chaos is also beginning to put increased pressure on top leaders to take a more forceful approach to the charges surrounding Flynn, who discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador to the United States in December, current and former U.S. officials said.
During roll call votes Tuesday morning, several members of the Senate Intelligence Committee convened on the chamber floor to discuss the situation.
According to one member of the bipartisan huddle, the senators delivered a direct message to the committee chairman, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), that his slowly emerging investigation into Russian cyberattacks during the 2016 campaign had to be more aggressive and more expansive. Events were moving too quickly, the senators told Burr in what was an animated discussion easily seen from the galleries above the chamber.
If Burr didn’t act, the momentum would build into a special committee or even a blue-ribbon commission doing the investigation. By 4 p.m. Tuesday, Burr emerged from committee offices to announce that his probe would expand to include Flynn’s pre-inaugural discussions with the Russian ambassador.
The decision to broaden the Intelligence Committee investigation also has the parallel effect of helping Republican lawmakers to steer demands for investigations into Trump-related controversies into a single panel over which they have partisan control. That will free up more time, they hope, to focus on fulfilling their legislative promises — such as their seven-year-old vow to tear up the ACA if they ever got full control of Congress and the White House.
As difficult as the ACA effort has been, Trump’s constant controversies are draining too much energy for lawmakers to focus on the domestic policy agenda that Ryan and McConnell had been hoping for this year.
And no embroilment is as distracting as anything connected to Trump and Russia, following the president’s campaign of talking soft toward Moscow and intelligence findings that allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin worked to promote Trump’s candidacy.
When a reporter said Tuesday that he had a question unrelated to Flynn, McCain hugged him.
The senators had just seen a more than hour-long presentation with Ryan, a rare guest on that side of the Capitol, and Vice President Pence, who are aiming to forge a game plan for a critical stretch ahead. Ryan’s caucus holds another meeting on the ACA on Thursday, after which Congress is to adjourn for a 10-day break.
When the House and Senate return Feb. 27, Republicans have a five-week sprint to meet their first self-imposed deadline for passing a bill that would repeal the ACA and begin the long process to replace it.
How close are they to unity on legislation?
“I think we’re getting there,” Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said. He called the Ryan-Pence luncheon “swell,” but said that it was not “peachy.”
McCain was more dour, saying that things are better than three weeks ago, when congressional Republicans assembled in Philadelphia for a policy retreat. There, they squabbled over which buzzwords to use to describe the repeal effort. Now, they’re getting into more policy substance.
But every advance on health care seems to be quickly eclipsed by the newest Trump distraction.
Despite Republicans’ work to put the attention where they think it belongs on Tuesday morning, the results were less than effective.
“We’re like small children in that we only have certain priorities. . . . Our attention span is short,” McCain said, “and when you take the attention away from one issue and put it on the other, then obviously it slows the progress of the issue that is not paramount at the time.”