WASHINGTON (AP) — The furor over President Donald Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey threatened on Thursday to overshadow the GOP's legislative agenda on health care, tax reform and more. Add in a potentially contentious confirmation battle over the next director, and the Republicans' already difficult task of getting major bills on Trump's desk just got harder.
"It certainly is a distraction," said Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark. "There are some really important things going on both domestically and overseas that have to be dealt with and Congress has to deal with these things ... so it does divert attention."
Even though no Democratic votes will be needed to confirm the next FBI director, since it will take a simple majority vote, the fight is certain to be heated. Democrats and Republicans alike were laying down markers Thursday for a candidate of unimpeachable integrity who could restore trust in the bureau.
"The FBI is a huge institution in this country. It should not be directed by the chief executive of the country. It should be directed from outside of the executive branch. I really believe that," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
Past FBI directors, including Comey, have been approved by overwhelming bipartisan margins. Comey was approved 93-1 in 2013, with GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky the only dissenting vote.
Lawmakers questioned whether such unanimity would be possible in the atmosphere of furious partisan acrimony that's overtaken Washington. Some expressed the hope that by the time the vote comes around, tempers will have settled.
"We're not going to be voting on a director of the FBI I wouldn't think for quite a while," said Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of GOP leadership.
Several senators Thursday floated names of potential candidates, including former GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, and former Judge Mike Luttig of the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, who now serves as general counsel at Boeing.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said he'd suggested Luttig's name to the White House.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, recommended D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Merrick Garland, who was former President Barack Obama's nominee to the Supreme Court last year but never got a hearing amid GOP obstruction. Instead, Neil Gorsuch was confirmed to the high court vacancy last month.
Lee said over Twitter that Garland could "restore trust in the FBI." The idea got a positive reception from Democrats and Republicans alike, with Republicans noting it would have the added benefit of creating a vacancy on a key court for Trump to fill.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Lee got an "A for originality" for the suggestion and that he would support Garland but doubted he would want the job.
Blunt said of Garland: "He's a perfectly fine man who'd probably be better at the FBI than he would being a judge. It would also create a vacancy in the important D.C. Circuit, so maybe I like it better the more I think about it."
Comey's replacement for now, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, testified on Capitol Hill on Thursday about Comey's firing, undermining the White House version of events. Comey himself is scheduled to be on the Hill next week.
Democrats tried to keep the focus on their demand for a special prosecutor to investigate Russia's meddling in the 2016 election and ties to Trump's campaign. Most Republicans rejected that, but many had unanswered questions about Comey's firing and voiced concerns and skepticism about the White House's explanation.
All of that had many lawmakers squarely focused on the FBI and Trump, even as senators tried to forge ahead with crafting their own version of legislation to repeal and replace "Obamacare."
"I don't think there is any question that this is bad news on the pace that domestic legislation will move forward," said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the right-leaning American Action Forum and a former director of the Congressional Budget Office. "It takes time and attention away from those legislative initiatives — the only question is how much."
If the Republican majority can't deliver on its tax and health care agenda "for whatever reason," Holtz-Eakin added, "voters will judge them for that in 2018 and 2020."
If Congress can't finalize health care legislation, the ability to produce tax reform will get all the more difficult, which could stall the momentum in the stock market and derail the business sentiment highlighted by Trump as signs of success.
The administration has met with corporate leaders to discuss possible changes to the tax code to lower rates. One White House official has told The Associated Press that the failure to reduce taxes by the end of this year could stop companies from making public commitments with Trump to create jobs and build factories. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss private conversations.
Associated Press writers Josh Boak and Matthew Daly contributed to this report.