How impeachment could threaten key legislation by taking up 'every bit of oxygen' in D.C.

With the focus now on impeachment, lawmakers in Washington will have a hard time getting anything else done, experts tell CBC News. From gun control to prescription drug pricing to the North American free trade deal, key legislation could find itself in political quicksand.

Everything from approving a North American trade deal to new measures on gun control could be sidelined

U.S. President Donald Trump is facing an impeachment inquiry — a politically charged process that could push other legislative priorities to the side in Washington. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

With the focus in Washington, D.C., firmly fixed on impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump, some experts say legislation that was already slowed down by political division runs the risk of hitting a dead end.

"The American political agenda has just become completely subsumed by impeachment proceedings," said political scientist Ian Bremmer. "It will take up every bit of oxygen."

Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry against Trump on Tuesday.

She said Trump betrayed his oath of office, national security and the integrity of American elections when he asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate his political rival, former U.S. vice-president and 2020 presidential hopeful Joe Biden, during a phone call in July.

Trump had frozen a nearly $400-million military aid payment to Ukraine days before making the call and asking for the "favour." 

Based on the issues at stake, the impeachment inquiry against Trump takes the country into territory not seen since President Richard Nixon's impeachment hearings in the 1970s, Bremmer said.

"We're actually talking about the sanctity of elections, which are upcoming. We're talking about national security. I mean, these are really fundamental issues," said Bremmer, president and founder of the Eurasia Group, a global political risk research and consulting firm.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a point of telling reporters that the Democrats are still focused on other priorities, including finalizing the new North American trade deal. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

There had been faint hope that Republicans and Democrats might be able to co-operate on a few issues, such as lowering prescription drug prices, introducing gun-control measures and passing the new North American trade deal.

But those efforts now go from being incredibly challenging in a polarized climate to virtually impossible, Bremmer said. 

"You're not going to be able to get partisan agreements because the [Democrats] and Republicans are going to go into their respective holes and start to lob grenades at each other," he said.

Staying focused

That process of entrenchment may still be taking shape, as some lawmakers involved in key issues on Capitol Hill insist they will continue on with their work despite the impeachment process.

The challenge of trying to prevent impeachment from pushing other priorities to the side was evident during Pelosi's 24-minute press briefing on Thursday. The back-and-forth with reporters was dominated by questions about Ukraine and that day's testimony from the acting director of national intelligence.

But before the briefing was over, Pelosi tried to shift the focus.

"In case anyone's interested, we're moving ahead on the U.S., Mexico, Canada Agreement," she said, referring to the trade deal that would replace NAFTA. "We're hoping to be on a path, a continued path to 'yes.'"

She also said discussions are ongoing on lowering prescription drug costs.

Other lawmakers involved in the trade negotiations also expressed optimism the deal can still be passed.

"There is no reason, based on what happened [Tuesday], to think that there's any deterrents that will hold us back," Rep. Richard Neal, a Democrat from Massachusetts and chair of the House ways and means committee, told reporters on Wednesday.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer says he's confident impeachment proceedings won't derail the passage of the new North American trade deal. (Susan Walsh/The Associated Press)

Speaking to reporters earlier this week, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who led the trade negotiations with Canada and Mexico, seemed unfazed by any potential impact of impeachment proceedings on efforts to pass the deal through Congress.

"If it did not pass, it would be a catastrophe for our economy," said Lighthizer, suggesting the bill should be modified to accommodate concerns raised by Democrats.

Rep. Jimmy Gomez from California, one of the Democrats negotiating with Lighthizer, quoted the television show Game of Thrones on social media, hinting that within the chaos of impeachment, there will be opportunity to get it done.

"Chaos is a ladder," he wrote.

But New York University historian Timothy Naftali thinks Democrats could find that ladder very troublesome.

One option Republicans may choose, he said, is to pursue legislation Democrats won't support as a distraction from impeachment, and, if stalled by Democrats, blame the inaction on their political opponents.

"One of the perverse outcomes of this process now is that Republicans and the White House might think it necessary to be more active legislatively just to show the value of this president," said Naftali, who is one of the authors of Impeachment: An American History.

The president already seems to want to use impeachment as a political cudgel to attack the Democrats.

On Wednesday, Trump said he doubts Pelosi will be able to finalize and pass the trade deal.

"She's wasting her time on a … manufactured crisis," he said.

By Thursday, Trump had expanded the list of issues he says will be overtaken by the Democrats' focus on impeachment. 

"They don't want to talk about infrastructure. They don't want to talk about lowering drug prices. They don't want to talk about anything because they're fixated on this," Trump said, also mentioning gun control and immigration.

On gun control, the prospects for new legislation expanding background checks were already dim, partly due to mixed messages from the White House. And this week, Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy told Politico that negotiations with the Trump administration seem all but dead.

Impeachment "may temporarily be the end of the road for a lot of legislative initiatives," he said.

However, Naftali said there is actually a small chance impeachment could break the partisan logjam in Congress.

Some Republicans, especially those in swing districts, could be more willing to compromise if they sense the president is weakened as the impeachment process drags on, he said. Republicans who, in the past, may have worried about angering the president and being punished by facing a Trump-backed primary challenger might not be as easily intimidated.

"If the president starts to lose support, then Republicans will be less afraid of him," he said. "And if they're less afraid, maybe they'll see it in their interest to work with Democrats on some issues they'd like to run on in 2020."

'Facts will determine the timeline'

How long impeachment will hover over Congress remains to be seen.

Naftali pointed out that, unlike with previous impeachment attempts, there are six committees investigating the president this time around as opposed to just one. That has the effect of not only slowing down other business in Congress, but the impeachment process itself.

Pelosi told reporters Thursday that while she wants the process to move expeditiously, she hasn't given committee chairs investigating the president a deadline. 

"The facts will determine the timeline," she said. 

Even if lawmakers can agree on legislation, Bremmer cautions that Trump's attention will likely still be consumed by impeachment. 

"Trump is one of the least emotionally disciplined people that we've ever encountered in political life, and so his ability to tamper down his emotions for his long-term interests when he's angry is virtually zero."


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