WASHINGTON: The investigation into alleged ties between President Donald Trump's election campaign and Russia is threatening to dampen already flagging momentum for the president's legislative agenda of rolling back Obama care and overhauling the tax code.
With the Senate convening on Monday and the House of
Representatives on Tuesday for a legislative sprint leading up
to an August recess, the spotlight is on James Comey, the FBI
director fired by Trump on May 9.
Comey, who will appear before the Senate Intelligence
Committee on Thursday, will be grilled on whether Trump tried to
get him to back off an investigation into alleged ties between
the president's 2016 campaign and Russia. Trump, a Republican, has called the Russia probe a "witch hunt" designed to undermine the legitimacy of his electoral win.
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The Russia matter presents a double-barreled threat to
congressional Republicans: It could impede healthcare and tax
initiatives that already were languishing and it could hurt
efforts to hold onto their majorities in the House and Senate in
2018 midterm elections.
"It's an enormous distraction and it creates uncertainty,"
said veteran Republican Representative Tom Cole in a telephone
interview. "It casts a pall over the political system and slows
things down. You don't want to slow things down when you have
all three levers of power," Cole said, referring to the White
House, Senate and House.
The day before Comey's scheduled testimony, top US
intelligence officials are set to appear before the same panel
to discuss renewal of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act,
or FISA, which allows the government to collect communications
of foreigners thought to be living overseas whose communications
pass through American phone or internet providers. But senators are likely to also wade into the Russia affair.
Lawmakers must also come up with a plan to raise the
country's debt limit. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is
clamoring for Congress to quickly approve more borrowing
authority as the incoming stream of tax revenues slows. Republican fiscal conservatives routinely demand budget cuts
and other concessions as a price for raising the debt limit,
setting up a likely fight.
Amid all this, Trump and his fellow Republicans in Congress
hope the new work session, following a week-long Memorial Day
break, will be a chance to 'reset' the conversation in
Washington that has centered on Russia and their failures so far
on healthcare and tax legislation. House Republicans hope this week to pass a repeal of portions of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law.
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But that bill will face resistance in the Senate, where Democrats are
expected to use procedural tactics to kill it. Even so, House Republicans hope passage of 'low-hanging
fruit' bills like this will allow them to argue that they have
racked up accomplishments when they go home to their districts
in August. Meanwhile, the Senate is struggling to craft legislation
repealing and replacing Obamacare, former President Barack
Obama's landmark law that expanded health insurance coverage to
millions and placed new controls on insurers. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in a May 24 interview with Reuters said, "I don't know how we get to 50 (votes) at the moment" but pledged to forge ahead. Senators this week are expected to be presented with
options for a new healthcare program they hope will be more
acceptable to voters than one passed by the House.
Failure to agree on a formula by early July could doom the
push to kill Obamacare, which has been a Republican vow since it
became law in 2010. Congress is already months behind in writing a budget blueprint that would guide federal spending in the fiscal year
beginning Oct. 1. Republicans are deeply divided over the level
of defense spending and potential structural reforms to social
welfare programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
If that is not enough, House Republicans are promising to
streamline the antiquated tax code and reduce rates. Democrats
and some experts outside of Congress argue their approach would
largely help the wealthy while ballooning the nation's debt.
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