Comey crisis could bedevil Trump on health care, tax reform

2017-05-13 08:24
FBI Director James Comey testifies during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Carolyn Kaster, AP)

FBI Director James Comey testifies during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Carolyn Kaster, AP)

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Washington - US Republicans struggling to pass a health care overhaul and tax reform this year have seen their path narrow, as Congress reels from fallout over President Donald Trump's firing of his FBI director.

The shock dismissal of James Comey -- and the White House's bungling of the aftermath -- has triggered distress on Capitol Hill, with Democrats and Republicans increasingly preoccupied with how Trump's action affects investigations into his team's possible collusion with Russia.

The resulting chaos has antagonized some moderate Republicans, who had hoped to move on from the cycles of controversy that have marked the administration's first four months and forge consensus on legislative priorities.

Trump campaigned heavily on pledges to repeal and replace Obamacare and reform the tax code.

Both are monumental tasks, and while Congress can act with due speed when it wishes, its chambers are paralyzed by gridlock. Seamless bipartisan cooperation is a fantasy on Capitol Hill in 2017, and some say the Comey hue and cry will only make it more difficult to cooperate on big-ticket legislation.

"Certainly there is a case to be made that it will be more polarizing and more partisan, not less," Republican Senator Tim Scott said Thursday as he contemplated prospects for getting a controversial Obamacare repeal bill through the Senate.

Even staunch conservatives acknowledged that the latest political uproar -- parts of which have unfolded like a spy novel, including subpoenas of Trump's former national security advisor Michael Flynn and hints of clandestine White House recordings -- is cutting into congressional efforts to move forward.

"I'd say it's a distraction," warned Orrin Hatch, the Senate's longest-serving Republican.

Complicating the schedule in coming months is a series of fiscal deadlines, including passing a spending bill by September 30 and negotiating a raise of the debt ceiling, that could suck up weeks if not months of valuable Washington legislative time.

With Comey's departure, another hiccup to the already tight timing: a potentially protracted Senate confirmation process for a new FBI director.

- 'Walk and chew gum' -

House Speaker Paul Ryan stressed that Congress can move forward with its 2017 legislative priorities despite three full congressional Russia-related investigations and the Comey disaster.

"We can walk and chew gum at the same time," he told Fox News.

"We've got a full plate of things that we think are necessary, not only to fulfill our promises, but making sure that we get the economy growing."

The top Republican in Congress said Tuesday the US Senate could pass a health care bill before the August recess, and that lawmakers would finish tax reform by year end, but the calendar window is narrowing.

After the House passed controversial legislation last week that repeals large chunks of the Affordable Care Act, the Senate signalled it will start from scratch on its own bill.

There are deep divisions within Trump's Republican Party over the House bill. GOP senators bristle at provisions that slash Medicaid funding by $800 billion.

They also worry that people with pre-existing conditions would be forced to pay higher insurance premiums under the House legislation, potentially leaving millions unable to afford care.

Some analysts say the ongoing turmoil is complicating efforts to achieve Trump's goal of passing health and tax reform in 2017.

"The firing was impulsive and poorly handled by the White House and it diminishes our confidence in the administration's ability to tackle large, complex issues, like tax reform," analyst Brian Gardner of Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, an investment bank, wrote in a note to investors.

"These methods create chaos and make it more difficult to build the political support necessary to pass major legislation."

Democrats could throw up their own hurdles, including obstructing the confirmation of Trump's new FBI nominee, unless Republicans back their call for appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the Russia connections.

With a time crunch looming, Republican leaders distanced themselves from Ryan's optimistic predictions.

"The Senate needs to control it's own schedule -- no arbitrary deadlines," number two Senate Republican John Cornyn told AFP.

Senate Democrat Dick Durbin said Ryan's Senate health care timeline was "wishful thinking."

Congress must also pass a new spending bill by September 30, the end of the fiscal year, or risk a crippling government shutdown.

While Trump will be pushing hard to include funding for his Mexico border wall, Republicans will need to make nice with Democrats, as at least eight Senate Democrats will be required to pass a spending bill.

(AFP)

Read more on:    trump  |  james comey

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