By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. government shutdown has begun to delay Democratic plans for congressional oversight of Donald Trump and his presidency, lawmakers and aides said on Wednesday.
Before taking control of the House of Representatives last Thursday, Democrats had said they would investigate Trump on multiple fronts, including ties with Russia, his tax returns and allegations of conflicts of interest.
Almost a week into the new Congress, House lawmakers have yet to empanel and organise the committees that would do the work.
Democratic leaders are engrossed in a legislative drive to reopen government agencies that have been closed since Dec. 22 over Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion (4.5 billion pounds) to fund a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Is it a distraction? Yes. We’re (being) taken away from organising and getting down to the substantive business, because we’re trying to get government open for the American people,” House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer told Reuters.
Democrats say their priority is to reopen the government, resume paychecks for about 800,000 federal employees and restart disrupted government services.
On Wednesday, House lawmakers including eight Republicans passed a bill to end the shutdown of the Treasury Department and other agencies, without money for the wall.
But there was no indication that the Republican-controlled Senate would vote on the bill. Trump also walked out of talks with Democratic leaders, calling the discussions “a total waste of time.”
Democrats accused the Trump administration of using the shutdown to try to delay oversight, citing what they said was an effort to postpone acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker’s appearance before the House Judiciary Committee until mid-February.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, who had expected Whitaker this month, rejected the proposed delay. A Justice Department spokeswoman did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
“The administration cannot shut the government down and then plead ‘government shutdown’ as a way to avoid doing its legal responsibilities,” said Democratic Representative Jamie Raskin.
House tax committee Chairman Richard Neal said he intended to hold hearings on the shutdown’s impact on the Internal Revenue Service and its ability to distribute tax refunds. It was not clear when such hearings would be held.
Democratic aides said it could take another week to assign members to committees including Judiciary, Intelligence, Oversight and Government Reform, Ways and Means and Financial Services, which are expected to play key roles in scrutinizing Trump and his administration.
Some lawmakers said the shutdown was not a drag on oversight. “In my view, it’s not delayed,” said Representative Hakeem Jeffries, who heads the House Democratic Caucus.
But others disagreed.
“Our leadership and all of us are having to spend hours dealing with phone calls from constituents and on issues around the shutdown,” said Democratic Representative Pramila Jayapal, who sits on the House Judiciary Committee.
Democratic Representative Bill Pascrell, a tax committee member, said: “Everything’s delayed. … You’ve got to be occupied with trying to get the government open so that people can get paid, for crying out loud.”
(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Peter Cooney)