Even as Senate Democrats began a Monday night talk-a-thon designed to spotlight the GOP’s still-secret Obamacare repeal plan, some of their own questioned the party’s other potential procedural tactic to block committees from meeting this week.
The skepticism within the caucus underscores the risk facing Senate Democrats as they launch an all-out battle against a Republican health care bill they have had zero power to influence. Democrats want to use every procedural tool at their disposal to slow the GOP’s progress, but one of their more arcane options — the power to block committee meetings two hours after the Senate goes into session — risks inviting Republicans to paint them as heedlessly obstructionist.
“I do think we need to do something to try to get some input on this crazy damn health bill that they’re doing,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said in an interview. But Tester held back from supporting a halt to committee work starting on Tuesday: “I don’t know if that’s the right thing to do. I think we should still try to be doing our business.”
Two high-profile Tuesday hearings could get sandbagged by a Democratic blockade using the so-called “two-hour rule,” if it is invoked: the Foreign Relations Committee’s discussion of presidential authorizations for the use of military force and a Judiciary Committee look at past congressional and criminal investigations. If the tactic is used Wednesday, it could prematurely cut off an Intelligence Committee hearing on Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Monday night declined to confirm that Democrats would begin holding up committee work, but other senior Democratic sources said that those objections would happen on Tuesday.
Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, the top Democrat on the Judiciary subpanel hosting former Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) for a Tuesday look at past congressional investigations, said that “I hope that we’ll find a way to let the hearing go forward. But we’ll see.”
The reluctance to endorse a stoppage of committee work on Tuesday appears to be a minority view among Democrats, most of whom said no tactic should be out of bounds when it comes to protesting the GOP’s clandestine drafting of a health care bill that will have a huge impact on the public. Senators offered multiple unanimous consent requests Monday night aimed at forcing the Obamacare repeal bill through the regular committee process that Republicans have sidestepped this year, though all were blocked by the GOP.
“We have to make the point that this isn’t the way to legislate,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in an interview, calling for any tactic possible to draw attention to the GOP’s “bizarre” avoidance of public hearings.
“We’ll get to the Russia hearing,” Feinstein added. “How many people are going to die if we don’t do the right thing [on health care]?”
But moderate Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), one of the GOP’s top targets in the midterm elections and a member of his party’s leadership, warned that Democrats should not be responding to Republican exclusion on health care with hardline tactics of their own.
“I don’t like any of this idea — any of these ideas,” Manchin said, “First of all, Republicans not involving the Democrats is wrong. It’s purely wrong. Does this highlight it? I don’t know. My gut tells me back home… it just makes it look like if we’re not doing anything.”
The Foreign Relations hearing on congressional approval of military operations is a top priority for Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who has joined Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) to pitch a new authorization that would cover operations against the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The intelligence committee’s Russia hearing is a rare public opportunity for members to advance their bipartisan investigation of President Donald Trump’s ties to Moscow.
Still, even Democratic members of the committees where business might get blocked starting Tuesday called for the Senate’s routine business to slow amid a health care process that’s been anything but routine.
“Many people are really focused on [Obamacare repeal] because it hits them where they live," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who sits on Judiciary. “ I’m always reluctant to shut down anything, but refusing to have hearings and provide a text or draft of a bill is like shutting down democracy.”
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) acknowledged in an interview that "some people are enthusiastic about shutting down hearings. Others are less so."
“Look, we don’t want to shut down hearings — but we will,” Schatz said. “Everybody has a good relationship with their chair. But it is hard to defend staying in the regular order and maintaining a sense of bipartisanship when something so egregious is happening."