WASHINGTON — Lawmakers still gather in committee rooms to discuss matters like improving chronic disease management and amphibious warfare.
Statues of Ben Franklin and other luminaries of history remain swathed in eerie plastic to protect them from protracted tests of the Capitol’s smoke detection systems.
Senate pages bumble around the chamber in ill-fitting jackets, racing to get their bosses glasses of water.
But through it all, everyone watches their Google alerts with a mild sense of panic, waiting for the next daily — sometimes hourly — missive of dysfunction.
“I can’t believe it,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, said as he ambled off the Senate floor this week shaking his head, moments after news broke that James B. Comey, who was fired as F.B.I. director, had left memos saying that President Trump had asked him to shut down an investigation of his former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn.
As the bricks of bad news about Mr. Trump pile up, Republicans have struggled to portray themselves as busy toiling away at the nation’s business even though their legislative agenda moves deeper into the abyss.
“This is another busy week as we continue to make progress on our agenda for the American people,” Speaker Paul D. Ryan said, cheerfully, during a Thursday morning news conference, ticking off technology reform legislation winding its way to the floor, tax talks and bipartisan legislation to improve career and technical education in the offing.
Yet as they left their offices to attend a hearing or a vote each day this week, lawmakers were swarmed by reporters, who trailed along with them down long hallways in a giant human hive, replete with extended arms bearing iPhones and tape recorders, demanding to know the latest on Mr. Trump’s travails. Mundane confirmation votes dragged out. Attention was diverted. Legislation was ignored.
“This has really captured the attention of all senators, and all Americans really,” said Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, charged with investigating the role of Russia in Mr. Trump’s election.
“I am getting calls from supporters asking questions about things like martial law,” Mr. Warner said. “And remember I am a moderate!” He added, “The absence of other substantive legislative activity makes this all the more in focus.”
Republican leaders tried their best to highlight the alternative universe on Capitol Hill, where they insist lots of lawmaking is going on. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, tried to turn the talk to health care most of the week, suggesting on Thursday that people who pick up their children from school were likely to be in a tizzy over the hobbled health care exchanges in his home state.
But in their offices, gyms and cloakrooms, lawmakers and their staff members pondered with colleagues the speed and depth of Mr. Trump’s careening presidency. Republicans privately fretted that their bosses would have little to brag about when they spent August back in their home states. “Drama is not helpful in getting things done,” Mr. Ryan conceded.
The meltdown of a nascent presidency would distract even the most active and engaged Congress. But in many ways this Congress seemed particularly primed for huge distraction. Republican lawmakers — who control both chambers of Congress — have been doing most of their significant policy work on health care and to a lesser degree tax reform without Democrats.
Republicans fear any bill that would deal with, say, law enforcement would be used by Democrats as another vehicle to criticize Mr. Trump.
The Trump administration has been slow to send over its nominees for consideration, and Democrats have done their best to use procedural tricks to slow the process to a crawl and avoid assisting Republicans in any form.
There is very little legislation of significance emerging from committee rooms and hitting the Senate floor, and a major bill to repeal the health care law this month took most of the time of the House this spring.
“We’re trying to do health care reform and tax reform, and that takes a lot of time to get that right,” said Senator John Hoeven, Republican of North Dakota. “A lot of people are working very hard on both those issues.”
But even simple things like a bipartisan child sexual abuse bill has been difficult to move forward, not because Mr. McConnell is stopping it, but because of the many distractions.
The parallel worlds are quite different from 1973, when a Democratic Congress moved ahead on a variety of issues as President Richard M. Nixon’s problems escalated. That year, Mr. Nixon signed the Federal Highway Act and the federal H.M.O. Act. “Nixon was something of a centrist and wanted to get some of the credit for liberal initiatives,” said Donald A. Ritchie, the former Senate historian.
The parties were both more moderate and more split into distinct, large camps at that time — moderate and conservative Republicans and Southern and liberal Northern Democrats — compared with the highly polarized parties of 2017 filled largely with very conservative Republicans and very liberal Democrats.
Many of the House Republicans have never worked with a Republican president, and find themselves locked in the opposition mode of the previous eight years, while Democrats are increasingly bent on denying the other party, and especially Mr. Trump, any victories.
“Congress in 2017 seems to want to blame their dysfunction on Trump,” said Ray Smock, the director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education. But, he added, “The low legislative output of the last two or three Congresses was not Trump’s fault. The fault is with Congress with a Republican majority that was obtained as obstructionists to Obama, and they can’t shift gears to become positive legislators for the whole nation.”
Democrats are hoping that Republicans will fail to pass legislation along partisan lines, and come back to them to work on bills that require their input, such as a major infrastructure measure. Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, has pushed ahead with bipartisan efforts on health care and convened a meeting last Monday along those lines.
“We have to deal with these Russia questions,” said Senator Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania. “But at the same time we’ve got to make sure we do other things.” The work on Russia, he said, will make that more difficult.
Republicans say that even with the distractions, the worries, and the briefings and the mini-meltdowns, Congress will eventually find its footing under their party’s leadership. “In one sense I think of my life as being compartmentalized,” said Senator Bill Cassidy, Republican of Louisiana. The current environment “may deplete the president’s political capital,” Mr. Cassidy said. “But I don’t think it’s affecting the legislative process.”