Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, flanked by Sen. Cory Gardner (R) of Colorado, Sen. John Barrasso (R) of Wyoming, and Sen. John Thune (R) of South Dakota, speaks to reporters after the weekly policy luncheons on Capitol Hill.

What path forward for the GOP agenda?

The window for Republicans in Congress to make significant progress on their agenda is closing fast, and White House crises aren't helping. What to do? Experts point to lessons from the Clinton era.

The window for Republicans in Congress to make significant progress on their agenda is closing fast, and a disorganized and crisis-riddled White House is not helping. At all.

The past two weeks in particular underscore the distraction factor. They started with President Trump’s surprise May 9 firing of FBI Director James Comey over “this Russia thing” and culminated in the May 17 appointment of a special counsel, Robert Mueller, to investigate possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.

Republicans on the Hill are “putting out fires,” said a chagrined Sen. John Thune (R) of South Dakota, adding that “most of the damage is self-inflicted.” The senator, the No. 3 in the chamber’s GOP leadership, told reporters that his colleagues “want to move on to the agenda.”

Doing so is actually not that complicated say those in and out of Congress. But it requires discipline to stay focused on legislating and to resist getting sucked into the crisis of the day. It also requires a willingness for Republicans to cast off their moorings from the White House and go it alone if necessary.

“I know that the White House is in a complete shambles right now, but that does not stop the machinery of a separate branch of government from going forward,” says Ray Smock, director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

He points out that President Bill Clinton was under investigation for much of his presidency, but that did not stop Congress from working or legislation from being passed.

Running short on time

It may sound odd that only four months into the Trump presidency, Republicans are worried about time running out. But they want to put some points on the scoreboard before the 2018 midterm elections – traditionally punishing for the party in the White House.

So far, they’ve got only one big score, the confirmation of US Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, and a series of smaller ones in the form of regulation rollbacks.

But the year is disappearing fast, eaten up by floor time to confirm the president’s cabinet (a new FBI director will add to that) and (belatedly), budget season as the president sends his spending plan to the Hill next week. Meanwhile, health care, tax reform, and an infrastructure package are not even close to being done.

“They don’t have a lot of time to prove they can govern,” says John Feehery, former spokesman for Dennis Hastert, the longest serving Republican speaker of the House.

Now is the moment of decision, he says, to either work with Democrats on big items such as health care and tax reform, or to scale back their ambitions to more bite-sized pieces that their fractured caucus can swallow.

He points to the lessons of Hillary Clinton’s failure to launch health-care reform at the start of her husband’s presidency. “It was too big of a thing to chew.”

These four months remind Mr. Feehery of the 1994 “Gingrich Revolution,” when Republicans swept Congress under the leadership of Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia just two years into the Clinton presidency.

“There were a lot of controversies, a lot of stupidity, a lot of ethics stuff, a lot of polarization, a lot of dysfunction, a lot of dumbness from the top guy, but they still got stuff done,” says Feehery, including some big-ticket bipartisan items like welfare reform.

The secret?

“Just keep plugging away,” he says. Don’t get caught up in the media swirl. “Some members, they can’t help themselves, all they want to do is become pundits. Their job is not to become pundits. They need to get their work done. Keep it focused.”

That is easier said than done. Lawmakers, particularly prominent ones, feel they have to prep themselves on the latest controversies so they can respond intelligently to reporters’ questions. That’s time consuming, and in an era when the 24-hour news cycle has morphed into the 24-second one, it can also be futile. Some find they simply can’t keep up.

Isolate the scandal

White House crises, however, can take on a life of their own, says Patrick Griffin, former director of legislative affairs for Mr. Clinton, who was the first president since 1868 to be impeached.

Lawmakers need to build support for their policies, but if all anyone wants to talk about is scandal, policies can’t get the oxygen they need to move forward. “They’re competing for air,” says Mr. Griffin, who recalls trying to talk education on the Hill while being pummeled with questions about the Clintons’ “Whitewater” real estate investments.

The lesson from the Clinton era, he said, is to isolate scandal and contain it. He and others say the appointment of Mr. Mueller as special counsel can now be a huge aid to Congress, helping to deflect attention away from them to his probe – though congressional committees will still conduct their own Russia investigations.

Griffin described the independent prosecutor of the Clinton era as “an atom,” very intense and dense and holding a huge amount of energy. “But it gave us room to act.”

Operate independently

Lawmakers, however, must decide to act, and not use White House dysfunction or scandal as an excuse, says Mr. Smock, who is also the former House historian. This is Congress’s moment to rediscover its historical independence from the White House as a co-equal branch of government and do its work. It’s only the modern era that has made the presidency so all-important, he says.

In this light, Congress doesn’t have to wait for the White House to flesh out its tax reform talking points; it can come up with its own plan. Neither does it have to tap its toes while the administration gets its ducks in a row on infrastructure – or any other GOP goal.

Indeed, Republicans look like they’re trying to move ahead regardless, kicking off hearings this week on tax reform and trying to fashion their own health-care bill in the Senate.

“It’s always nice to have less drama,” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin told reporters Thursday. “I realize there’s a lot in the media these days. That doesn’t seize up Congress. That doesn’t stop us from doing our jobs.”

The proof of that, however, is not in a press conference. It’s on the scoreboard.

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