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Senate Republicans pray the Comey firing won’t send their agenda off a cliff

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) speaks to reporters about President Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey, on Capitol Hill May 10, 2017 in Washington, DC.
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Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) speaks to reporters about President Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey, on Capitol Hill May 10, 2017 in Washington, DC.

President Trump's decision Tuesday to fire FBI Director James Comey didn't just throw the White House into chaos and amplify uncomfortable questions about the administration's ties to the Russian government — it also threatened to derail the entire Republican agenda.

Congress has only so much time, energy, and attention to spare, and lawmakers are now assured of weeks of media coverage about a toxic issue and must prepare for the potentially contentious confirmation of a new FBI director.

Hill Republicans were supposed to be getting on track. After the House passed a health care bill last week, senators were getting to work on their own plan, with a tax overhaul still to come later this year. Senate Republicans already said health care, the first part of their policy two-step, could take months to complete. They must resolve big differences between their moderate and conservative wings.

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Then Trump stepped in and sacked Comey. It was a wrench nobody expected.

Republicans are putting a good face on it, promising that they can walk and chew gum at the same time. They are hoping Trump picks an uncontroversial nominee to succeed Comey, allowing the storm to subside and the work on health care to stay on schedule. A messy confirmation could lead to escalation by Democrats that slows the Senate to a crawl, putting even more hurdles in front of the GOP's agenda.

They are, in other words, banking on a measured approach from the president to prevent Comey and the Trump-Russia scandal from unraveling policy goals that they have been pursuing for years.

Republicans are betting Trump will nominate an agreeable person to lead the FBI

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the health committee chair who is helping to lead the health care effort, told me that he thinks Republicans and Democrats want the same qualities in the next FBI director — and so if Trump nominates such a person, it should quell this week's whirlwind.

"I actually think that Republicans and Democrats will be looking for exactly the same thing: a very well-qualified FBI director of unimpeachable integrity who can lead the FBI and continue the investigation into what the Russians were doing in our election," Alexander said. "I don't think it makes any difference for health care."

Other senators focused on the health care legislation were making the same implicit plea: An uncontentious nominee would keep things moving.

"It depends on who they choose, whether it's a controversial pick or not," Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, told reporters. "I don't see why it should be. It should be the best law enforcement person we can find."

But some senators were more circumspect. "I don't know," Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), one of the key swing votes on health care, said of the effect on her party's agenda. "We're eight hours into this news, so I don't know."

The US Capitol was manic on Wednesday over the Comey news, which even managed to overshadow the complex and high-stakes work on health care that has otherwise dominated the congressional discussion for the past few months.

"Health care's tough enough," Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) told reporters. Or as John Thune, a member of Senate GOP leadership, put it:

Republicans have built themselves some cushion on health care

Senate Republicans and their staff have gone to great lengths to manage expectations about how quickly they will act on a health care plan. They have said it could take several months, and some aides say privately the work could push into the traditional month-long break for lawmakers scheduled to start in August.

That is a matter of necessity as much as anything. Moderate and conservative senators need to find a compromise on how quickly to roll back Obamacare's Medicaid expansion, what financial assistance to provide poor Americans to buy insurance, and what to do about the law's protections for people with preexisting conditions.

Senators are picking up a House bill that the Congressional Budget Office estimated would lead to 24 million more Americans being uninsured and a more than $800 billion cut to Medicaid, the single largest insurer in the country. This was always going to take some time.

"We're focused on health care. This isn't going to have an impact on what we're trying to do," Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), who oversees policy for the Senate GOP conference, told me. He said that a group of 13 senators, spanning the ideological spectrum of the conference, would continue to meet three times a week to work on a health care plan.

They are also in a holding pattern for the next few weeks. The CBO said on Tuesday that it would not release its analysis on the House's bill until May 22. The Senate needs to see that analysis before it can make specific decisions about what to do with its own legislation.

Under the complex rules the Senate is using to pass a bill without Democratic support, Republicans cannot save more money in their plan than the House did in its bill. They won't know what that baseline is until they get a CBO analysis of the House legislation.

On a more fundamental level, GOP health care lobbyists told me that the Senate is well equipped to handle multiple issues at once.

"It will not have much of an effect on the day-to-day work," one lobbyist, who used to work in the Senate, told me. "Senators in particular have big staffs, and they will keep plugging away with heads down."

Democrats don't yet sound ready to go nuclear over Comey

Still, the Comey news and the search for a new FBI director is an unexpected complication. Trump will need to nominate somebody, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold hearings, and then the full Senate will have to vote. It took nearly two months for recently confirmed Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb to go from being nominated by Trump to being confirmed by the Senate.

Senate Democrats could make that process uncomfortable for Republicans, if they wanted to. The Senate relies on "unanimous consent" — the united agreement of Republicans and Democrats — to proceed on usual business like committee hearings and routine floor votes.

If Democrats start objecting, it could grind the Senate's work to a halt. Some GOP aides had been privately panicked about that possibility on Tuesday.

"The Senate is not designed to move quickly. Even in a perfect world it moves slowly, so if a member or minority party wants to jam it up, they can," one aide told me. "In their mind, I imagine they get a twofer — they jam us on Comey, and then, by default, they end up jamming us on health care so that it just drags out across the summer."

Democrats have indeed been weighing that option, as Vox's Jeff Stein reported. Their leaders symbolically objected to a unanimous consent request on Tuesday, citing the Comey controversy.

But at least for now, they don't seem ready to make such drastic measures a daily occurrence.

"I hope it doesn't get there," Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), the No. 2 Democrat, said. "I'm hoping for a bipartisan approach to this. But let's wait and see."

This is where Trump's choice for the next FBI director comes into play. If it is a controversial pick — and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani is reportedly in the mix, just for starters — Democrats might feel the need to escalate.

That could in turn complicate the next steps for health care, which would then delay lawmakers moving on to tax reform, the supposed centerpiece of the new Republican Congress's agenda.

So for now, the Senate waits for Trump. What's he going to do?