Pentagon & Congress

The impeachment trial is over. Now can Congress get defense work done?

With weeks of divisive impeachment arguments behind them, members of Congress are now faced with the task of moving ahead on routine business connected to military issues without devolving into more partisan bitterness.

That work begins in earnest next week, when the White House is expected to release its proposal for the fiscal 2021 budget. Lawmakers will spend the next few months negotiating among themselves and with President Donald Trump on increases to the budget for the Defense Department, national security priorities and overseas foreign aid.

That last topic was the focus of the Senate’s three-week impeachment trial, where Trump was accused of withholding military aid to Ukraine in exchange for a political investigation into a presidential rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.

The Senate ultimately declined to remove Trump from office by a largely party-line vote on Wednesday.

The trial — and the months of House investigations that preceded it — included harsh accusations from party leaders of dishonesty and disrespect.

Now, with the trial finished, those same lawmakers have to meet again to begin working through budget outlines and military policy, something that several hoped will be a quick return to normalcy and civility.

“I think we can all work together,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., when asked about post-impeachment business on Capitol Hill. “In fact, it’ll be more than normal, because we’re neglecting things now. There are things that we’re supposed to be doing, not just in defense but in other committees … that have been frozen.”

Inhofe’s committee has already held one hearing related to the fiscal 2021 defense budget, in an attempt to keep the committee on schedule. Committee ranking member Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said he is worried about falling behind, but expressed less optimism than Inhofe about lingering impeachment anger.

“In terms of procedure, we will move right into the hearings,” he said. “The substance and context might be affected a little. But long-term problems, we’ll see next week.”

Outside experts said Democratic leaders — particularly House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. — will be under increased pressure to oppose administration moves on defense funding, especially considering the military aid at the center of impeachment.

And while House Democrats have said they will continue investigating the president, they’ll also likely be motivated to prove they can still govern effectively in contrast to Trump’s accusation that they sidelined real congressional responsibilities to attack him, according to Democratic strategist Jim Manley, a former top aide to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Manley added that “there’s going to be a lot more anger" from the Democratic caucus. He also expects that the president “is going to continue to push the envelope, and I assume Republicans will stick with him.

Open government advocates believe Trump’s clampdown on his administration’s cooperation with the impeachment investigation will mean less transparency. Recent weeks have seen intelligence officials refuse to appear for an annual hearing on worldwide threats for fear of contradicting the president.

“I have grave concerns than an acquittal will be read by the executive branch as approval for stonewalling Congress’s constitutional oversight duties,” said Mandy Smithberger, of the Project on Government Oversight.

With the presidential and congressional elections slated for November, prospects for major legislation and an on-time federal budget (the new fiscal year starts in October) were already slim.

Jonathan Burks, who worked as a top aide to former House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said he expects House and Senate Democrats will likely push to wait until after the election to cut any deals with Republicans.

“They’re not going to get along on any appropriations deal or NDAA just because of wanting to wait out the president,” Burks said. “Senate Republicans aren’t going to be able to drive any decision outcomes because they can’t get to 60 without Democratic cooperation.”

Whatever partisan animosity might exist, it hasn’t impeded cooperation on federal spending discussions between Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and ranking member Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. The two said they have been meeting quietly ahead of the president’s FY21 proposal.

Retiring House Armed Services Committee ranking member Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said he thinks the election will be a larger factor in the coming months than lingering anger from impeachment.

But he also said that’s likely an insignificant distinction.

“I think Democrats and Republicans think it’s important to try and hold things together as well as we can, especially when it comes to the military,” he said.

“But do I expect a lot of production out of the House this year? Of course not. It’s all politics all the time.”

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