Democrat Questions Russia Link as Comey Heads to Hill

By Siobhan Hughes Features Dow Jones Newswires

The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee said there was no proof so far of collusion between Russia and Donald Trump's campaign, as Congress geared up for a week of high drama highlighted by the testimony of former Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey.

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"Listen, there's a lot of smoke. We have no smoking gun at this point," Mark Warner of Virginia said on CNN. "But there is a lot of smoke."

As congressional Republican leaders begin a push to produce a legislative accomplishment before an August recess knowing the window of opportunity is closing, a series of hearings into possible Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election -- and other challenges that have beset the Trump administration -- threaten to derail their plans.

On Wednesday, the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, and the director of the National Security Agency, Adm. Mike Rogers, will appear before Mr. Warner's committee. On Thursday, Mr. Comey is expected to tell the same panel that Mr. Trump asked him to back off an investigation of former national-security adviser Michael Flynn.

Mr. Warner said his committee will press Mr. Comey about the circumstances surrounding his abrupt firing last month by Mr. Trump. Many Democrats say Mr. Trump may have been attempting to obstruct justice by dismissing Mr. Comey. Mr. Trump said he fired Mr. Comey for incompetence. The president and his aides have denied colluding with Russia, which denies meddling in the election.

Meanwhile, as Congress returns to work this week after a Memorial Day break, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) will mount a fresh effort to rewrite the Affordable Care Act, the Obama-era health law. Mr. McConnell said last month he wasn't sure how he would secure enough votes to pass a bill given that no Democrats support the effort.

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The House GOP plan, which barely passed that chamber, doesn't have enough support to pass the Senate, which is expected to advance its own plan. To pass that bill and count on Vice President Mike Pence to provide the tiebreaking vote, the Senate can afford to lose only two GOP votes. That is a tough goal because three conservative Senate Republicans are at odds with at least three moderate Republicans.

The outlook for such a health measure didn't appear to improve over last week's break. "It's unlikely that we will get a health-care deal," Sen. Richard Burr (R., N.C.) told a North Carolina television station Thursday in a blunt assessment of the prospects for repealing and replacing the law often called Obamacare.

If the GOP health push fails, Congress would likely next put its energy into a tax overhaul, while also taking up other measures along the way, in part to project an image of accomplishment amid the turmoil surrounding the White House. Among the bills potentially in the mix is one imposing sanctions on Iran, which cleared the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month.

The House and Senate plan to leave for a five-week recess starting July 28, though that could be delayed. Pressure on lawmakers ahead of that break has intensified, with the Treasury Department urging Congress to raise the government's debt limit before departing.

This isn't the first time a party has faced pressure to produce after winning control of the White House and Congress and found high expectations colliding with political realities.

One challenge is that Congress and the White House operate on different clocks, and the window of opportunity that opens in the early months of a presidency can narrow rapidly, as lawmakers turn their attention to midterm elections.

"Members start worrying more about their own fate than following the president's lead on things," said Don Ritchie, a former Senate historian.

When President Barack Obama led a Democratic takeover in 2008, Democrats managed to enact a health law, a stimulus package and the Dodd-Frank banking measure in the early going. But they missed other goals, such as passing an ambitious energy bill. Some of what they did pass had to be significantly reined in -- and prompted a backlash at the polls.

The Republican playbook for confronting these challenges consists of a series of interlocking steps. In the Senate, Republicans are expected to unveil their health plan as early as this week, then wait for the Congressional Budget Office to provide cost and coverage estimates before holding a vote. A CBO analysis can take a couple of weeks.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Senate Republican, said recently the health-care debate would be wrapped up by the end of July. If the Senate passes a bill, it would mark a major legislative win for Mr. Trump and Republican leaders, and could lend momentum to other GOP initiatives. Then, however, the measure would have to be reconciled with the House version to become law. That could take months, or not happen at all during this congressional session.

Defeat of a GOP health plan in the Senate would leave Republicans with one more significant card to play: a tax overhaul. Republicans from Congress to the White House are planning to lay the groundwork for a tax rewrite during this seven-week legislative period. Mr. Trump is expected to campaign during July and August for a tax overhaul with an official plan released after Labor Day, according to a senior White House official.

To clear a path for that bill, House Republicans are expected by mid-June to start a legislative process that would allow the Senate to rewrite the tax code with a simple majority. That is important because Senate Republicans hold only 52 of the chamber's 100 seats and can expect little support from Democrats, yet they need 60 votes to pass most bills.

The special procedure would come in the form of a budget resolution for the 2018 fiscal year that would include instructions to write tax legislation that can skirt the Senate's traditional obstacles.

The Trump administration recently issued a surprise warning that tax revenues are falling short of expectations, prompting Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to urge Congress to raise the country's borrowing limit before it adjourns for the August recess. The timing is earlier than estimates independent fiscal analysts have cited and caught lawmakers by surprise.

Officials estimate the government could have difficulty making its payments in early September if the debt limit isn't raised. The Treasury Department began using emergency cash-conservation measures in mid-March after the expiration of a 16-month suspension of the debt limit, currently at $19.9 trillion.

If the Treasury exhausts its cash balance and isn't able to borrow, it wouldn't be able to pay certain bills, raising the risk of default. Mr. Mnuchin hasn't specified a date when this might happen.

Last week, top Democrats began suggesting they might use a fight over raising the borrowing limit to restrain Republicans' tax-cut plans. Some Republican lawmakers routinely oppose raising the debt limit, so GOP leaders would likely need Democratic votes to do so. Democrats say they want to stop the GOP tax rewrite from handing a disproportionate tax cut to the wealthy and ballooning the federal deficit.

Republicans say that they are up to the challenges and vow notable progress in the next two months.

"Congress is laser-focused on achieving its goals," Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) said recently. "It's a heavy lift, but we're doing the work and certainly able to walk and chew gum at the same time."

--Peter Nicholas, Nick Timiraos and Jay Solomon contributed to this article.

Write to Siobhan Hughes at siobhan.hughes@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

June 04, 2017 20:59 ET (00:59 GMT)