WASHINGTON — Capitol Hill could have been full of celebration Thursday over Congress’ first on-time passage of defense appropriations in a decade, an achievement many conservative lawmakers plan to carry with them on the campaign trail.
But the conversation over Pentagon budgeting barely made a whisper. Instead, all eyes were on the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and his accuser Christine Blasey Ford, a scandal that has all but overwhelmed other pressing business in Congress.
After a first minibus spending package became law earlier this month, the House and Senate sent the White House an $854 billion spending bill that includes full-year funding for the Pentagon, as well as the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. With the completion of this package, Congress will have approved 75 percent of all annual discretionary funding prior to the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.
It promises to be a watershed moment, as the last decade saw Congress routinely use temporary stopgap spending measures, which have hindered the Pentagon’s ability to plan and, as House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry said Wednesday, dulled America’s military edge.
“Those nine years of partisan politics, stopgap spending measures and kicking the can down the road have eroded our strength and encouraged our enemies. We have no duty that is more important than keeping faith with our troops,” said Thornberry, R-Texas.
But House Speaker Paul Ryan’s news conference to announce the appropriations vote Wednesday was eclipsed by questions on the two controversies of the day: the accusation against Kavanaugh and whether the president will fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Thursday was a highly emotional day, wherein Ford, a California psychology professor, detailed her allegation, that Kavanaugh tried to rape her in 1982, when they were both high school students. Kavanaugh defiantly testified that he was innocent and categorically denied the accusations against him.
By the lunch break, in the Senate subway and in the hallways where reporters gather to catch lawmakers, nearly every question seemed to be about the Judiciary Committee’s interview of Ford.
Asked if the appropriations win could have been a bigger story for Republican leaders if not for the confirmation drama, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn chuckled ruefully. (Cornyn had just pushed past a phalanx of TV camera crews.)
“There’s just too many distractions, unfortunately,” said Cornyn, R-Texas. “We’ve had a pretty productive Congress, and I’m not sure how many people know about it.”
In the Hart Senate Office Building’s lobby, the lobbyists and trade association representatives were crowded by police as well as those showing their allegiances through T-shirt slogans: “Confirm Kavanaugh”; “I am a survivor and I vote”; “I stand with Brett”; “Resist”; “Believe women.”
The building was busy but subdued, as supporters on both sides spoke to TV reporters or huddled around heir phones to watch the proceedings.
Dozens of Kavanaugh supporters with the conservative organization Concerned Women for America were there. But so were Women’s March-affiliated activists who held a moment of silence Thursday afternoon at Hart before marching to the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool and then the Supreme Court.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., didn’t seem annoyed that reporters were more focused on the Kavanaugh hearings than his role in avoiding a government shutdown.
“Obviously that’s the hottest story in town, the biggest story in town, so that happens all the time,” Shelby said of the Kavanaugh hearings. “Nevertheless, we made a lot of progress. We basically in the Senate established regular order, at least for now.”
The chairwoman of the Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, Sen. Shelly Moore Capito, agreed the congressional win was overshadowed, but said the day’s focus “is where it needs to be.”
“While I would like to be touting the success of our appropriations process — and we will — we need to be focused on what’s going on in the Judicial Committee,” said Moore Capito, R-W.V.
A lead advocate for robust Pentagon budgets, Sen. Lindsey Graham was wearing a different hat Thursday — that of staunch President Donald Trump supporter, defending Kavanaugh on Twitter and on the shows. (Graham is a member of the Armed Services, Appropriations and Judiciary committees.)
As Graham braved the reporters outside his office Thursday, a woman approached him to tell him she was raped. He was abrupt, reportedly telling her, “I’m sorry," and “You should have told the cops," as he stepped into an elevator.
Asked moments later if the win on defense appropriations has been crowded out by the Kavanaugh matter, Graham seemed distracted, if not shaken.
“Right, yeah,” he told a reporter. “Gotcha.”