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AT THIS HOUR WITH BERMAN AND MICHAELA
Tensions Boil As Senate Committee To Vote On Sessions; Senate Committee Sends Trump's Attorney General Pick To Full Vote. Aired 11- 11:30a ET
Aired February 1, 2017 - 11:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
SENATOR AL FRANKEN (D), MINNESOTA: -- as I noted, Mr. Hebert originally testified that he had, quote, "a fuzzy recollection about the incident in question." Upon refreshing his recollection, he immediately and voluntarily corrected the record. But if you didn't know better, after listening to Senator Cruz, you would think Mr. Hebert was caught lying and that the entirety of his testimony was discredited.
Again, this is just not what happened. Mr. Hebert did what a good lawyer does when he discovers he made a mistake. He forthrightly admitted his error and expeditiously corrected the record. But back to the transcript, Senator Cruz, and indeed the basis of Senator Franken's attack is he claims you were uninvolved in several civil rights cases that were listed on your questionnaire.
In 1986, Mr. Hebert testified, this is a quote from him, "I have need Mr. Sessions' help in those cases and he has provided that help every step of the way. Is that correct, that that is what Mr. Hebert testified? Senator Sessions, yes, that is correct. Now, once again, Senator Cruz elides the truth.
The four civil rights cases that I questioned Senator Sessions about during his hearing, the four he claimed to have personally handled, this is Senator Sessions, the guy we're talking about confirming or not confirming, they were not what Mr. Hebert was talking about in that quote from 1986.
Mr. Hebert worked on a number of cases in the Southern District of Alabama and he was speaking about how he had interacted with Senator Sessions generally. Now, to be clear, Mr. Hebert had explained to this committee that two of the four civil rights cases that Senator Sessions claimed credit for personally handling are cases that Mr. Hebert litigated himself personally.
They were filed before Senator Sessions was a U.S. attorney and Senator Sessions was not involved. Nonetheless, Senator Cruz attempted to conflate how Senator Sessions and Mr. Hebert interacted generally with Senator Sessions' quite limited involvement in these civil rights cases.
But since Senator Cruz brought up the assistance that Senator Cessions provided to Mr. Hebert, let's talk about that. After Senator Cruz mentioned this 1986 exchange, I called Mr. Hebert about it. And he explained to me that yes, Senator Sessions did provide assistance. When Mr. Hebert and his team needed to work weekends, Senator Sessions gave him a key to his office. Senator Sessions gave Mr. Hebert permission to assign work to his secretary, once. Now, none of the occasions that Mr. Hebert referenced were related to the four cases that Senator Sessions listed in his questionnaire.
But regardless, what Senator Sessions didn't do, to be clear, was personally handle any of the cases Mr. Hebert filed. So let's be clear about what happened here. Senator Cruz suggested that Mr. Hebert's correction rendered the remainder of his 1986 testimony unreliable.
And he suggested that Mr. Hebert knew it was false at the time he provided it. As I've explained, that's simply not true. But I would submit that Senator Cruz already knew that, because after he suggested that Mr. Hebert is a liar and unreliable, the Senator from Texas himself relied upon Mr. Hebert's testimony about getting assistance from Senator Sessions in an attempt to rehabilitate the nominee.
Back to the transcript, Senator Cruz. Now, in the four cases Senator Franken referred to, you reported all four of them in your supplement to the Judiciary Committee, is that right? Senator Sessions, that is correct. Senator Cruz, Mr. Franken did not mention that.
Now, here is Senator Cruz chastised me for not mentioning that Senator Sessions submitted a supplement to his questionnaire as if the contents of that supplement would somehow vindicate Senator Sessions. They don't.
So let's talk about the supplement. Senator Cruz is correct, Senator Sessions did submit a supplement. And in that supplement the nominee clarified that his role was to, quote, "provide support for DOJ attorneys." Let me say that again, provide support for.
He said he, quote, "provided assistance and guidance," unquote, and, quote, "cooperated with DOJ lawyers." Not quite personally handled, if you ask me. And I suspect that's why he felt the need to file the supplement.
[11:05:03]But notice how Senator Cruz explained the supplement during the hearing. Senator Cruz, let me point out, here is how you describe your involvement in your written submission to this committee.
And here is Senator Cruz quotes from the supplement. Quote, "For the cases described in 2, 4, 8, and 9," these are the four cases that Senator Sessions claimed to have personally handled, "my role, like most U.S. attorneys in the nation, and with noncriminal civil rights cases, was to provide support through the Department of Justice Civil Rights Divisions attorneys.
I reviewed, supported, and co-signed complaints, motions, and other pleadings and briefs that were filed during my tenure as U.S. attorney. I provided assistance and guidance to the civil rights attorneys, had an open door policy, that's the key, with them, and cooperated with them in these cases." Senator Cruz continues to quote the supplement, "For cases described in 6, I supervised litigation and signed the pleadings." Now, that is consistent with the 1986 testimony that you provided, helped every step of the way; isn't that correct, he asked Senator Sessions. Well, I think so, yes, Senator Sessions says.
Now, this is very important. Cases 2, 4, 8, and 9 are the four civil rights cases at issue. The four cases that Senator Sessions claimed to have personally handled but in fact did not. In the supplement, Senator Sessions walks back that claim and says he only provided assistance.
Case 6, which Senator Cruz took pains to mention and which Senator Sessions claimed credit for supervising, was not a civil rights case. It was a public corruption case. Senator Cruz cleverly attempted to conflate the cases in order to make it seem as if Senator Sessions had in fact supervised litigation in a civil rights case.
Senator Cruz neglected to point out that all four of the civil rights cases at issue here had either concluded or were still active back when Senator Sessions appeared before this committee in 1986. Thirty years ago, though, Senator Sessions did not list any of these cases at all. Senator Cruz did not mention that.
I wonder what changed between 1986 and now that caused these four civil rights cases to take on new significance for the nominee. It's hard to say. Look, Senator Cruz is a brilliant attorney, but he doesn't have a case here.
And the fact of the matter is that Senator Sessions misrepresented his record by claiming to have personally handled cases that he simply did not handle, and the supplement he filed doesn't explain that misrepresentation away.
It lays it bare for all to see. Senator Sessions would not have tolerated that kind of misrepresentation from a nominee before this committee and none of us should either. We have an important job to do here and it requires that each and every one of us understands the nominee's record accurately.
It's not our job to shade his record or to distort the testimony that witnesses share with us and with the public. So I felt it necessary to correct the way in which the senator from Texas misrepresented Mr. Hebert's testimony, and further distorted Senator Sessions' record on civil rights and voting rights.
Now, about voting rights, during his hearing, I asked Senator Sessions about an extraordinary claim made by the then-president-elect. In late November, the president-elect tweeted, quote, "In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally."
Let me repeat that, the millions of people who voted illegally. Now, let's pause for a fact check.
[11:10:05]President Trump lost the popular vote to the tune of 2.86 million votes. That's a fact. It's not an alternative fact. It's a fact. So I asked Senator Sessions at the time, do you agree with the president-elect that millions of fraudulent votes had been cast?
And he responded, quote, "I don't know what the president-elect meant or was thinking when he made that comment or what facts he may have had to justify his statement." Note that Senator Sessions didn't say whether or not he agreed, which was my question.
Then I asked him whether he had talked to the president-elect about the issue and Senator Sessions said, quote, "I have not talked to him about that in any depth."
Now, the Department of Justice under the attorney general's leadership and direction is tasked with protecting the right to vote and with prosecuting fraud.
So it seems unusual to me that the president-elect would not -- would make such a bold claim asserting that a fraud of truly epic proportions had occurred and that he wouldn't bother to discuss it with the guy he appointed to be the nation's top cop.
That didn't seem to bother Senator Sessions. I know you're looking at the time, but I was interrupted and I would like to finish my remarks as everyone else here got to yesterday. There's only a few pages remaining.
SENATOR CHUCK GRASSLEY (R), CHAIRMAN, SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Proceed.
FRANKEN: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. And I don't suppose this should come as a surprise because another thing that didn't seem to bother Senator Sessions was the speed to which states previously covered by the voting rights act moved to restrict voting rights after the Supreme Court's disastrous Shelby County decision. He and I discussed this at the hearing.
The reason I brought it up is that claims of bogus voter fraud are routinely used to justify voter suppression. Claims of fraud are what states point to when they pass restrictive laws.
So understanding how Senator Sessions' views on voting rights and understanding how he responded to the president-elect's outrageous claims of fraud, it's important, as we try to figure out whether he is capable of protecting people's right to vote as attorney general, to get his opinions on people's right to vote.
Senator Sessions has long been a critic of the voting rights act. He voted to author it in 2006, every Senator did. But when the Senate debated the reauthorization bill, Senator Sessions said, quote, "There is little present day evidence," unquote, of states restricting access to the ballot box.
He said the voting rights act, quote, "eliminated that discrimination." He complained that the acts pre-clearance requirement unfairly targeted certain states and he later celebrated the Shelby County decision which gutted the voting rights act. Now when I questioned him about that during his hearing, when I pointed out that after Shelby County, states moved quickly to enact restrictions, he didn't seem concerned.
Now, we discussed North Carolina, which enacted restrictions that the fourth circuit eventually described and overturned, they described it as targeting African-Americans with, quote, "almost surgical precision."
And which prevented African-American people from voting in the 2014 election. But all Senator Sessions managed to say was, quote, "every election needs to be managed closely and we need to ensure that there is integrity in it, and I do believe we regularly have fraudulent activities occur during election cycles."
Senator Sessions believes we regularly have fraudulent activities during our election cycles. That might explain why he didn't talk with the president-elect in any depth about his claim that millions of fraudulent votes were cast.
Senator Sessions perhaps didn't find it alarming because he believes there is a kernel of truth in that claim, but there is not. That claim has been fact checked to death. Nearly 138 million votes were cast in the 2016 election.
State officials found virtually no credible reports of fraud and no sign whatsoever of widespread fraud. In 2014, a comprehensive study examined elections over 14 years during which time more than 1 billion ballots were cast and found just 31 incidents of in-person voter fraud.
[11:15:11]But last week, after obsessing about how many people attended his inauguration, President Trump again claimed that he lost the popular vote because millions of undocumented immigrants cast illegal votes. Only this time the president got more specific. It wasn't just millions of illegal votes.
This time he said it was somewhere between 3 million and 5 million fraudulent votes. I wonder how he came up with 3 million illegal votes. I wonder if it could have anything to do with the fact that he lost by 2.86 million votes. This is beyond outrageous. This is profoundly disturbing.
The president went on to repeat this lie on Twitter and on television, before calling for a, quote, "major investigation into voter fraud," including those registered to vote in two states, those who are legal and even those who are registered to vote who are dead.
Depending on the results, we will strengthen up voting procedures, he said. Now, President Trump tweeted that before he knew that among those registered to vote in two states are his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, his press secretary, Sean Spicer, his nominee for treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, his daughter, Tiffany Trump, and his son-in- law, Jared Kushner. Nonetheless --
GRASSLEY: Speed it up, please. FRANKEN: OK. Nonetheless, President Trump later announced that he would sign an executive order related to voter fraud. This raises serious concerns. And before the member of this committee vote on Senator Sessions' nomination, we deserve to know whether the president wants the attorney general or the Justice Department to lead this investigation.
When the president of the United States lies about massive widespread fraud, it's the job of the attorney general to call him out on it. The attorney general has an obligation to tell it like it is. Senator Sessions may have said it best himself.
When Sally Yates was nominated to be deputy attorney general, Senator Sessions questioned her during her confirmation hearing. He said, and I quote, "You have to watch out, because people will be asking you to do things, and you'll just need to say no.
Do you think the attorney general has a responsibility to say no to the president if he asks for something that's improper? A lot of people have defended the Lynch nomination, for example, by saying, well, you appoint somebody who is going to execute his views, what's wrong with that?
But if the views the president wants to execute are unlawful, should the attorney general or the deputy attorney general say no?" Last page. Ms. Yates responded, quote, "Senator, I believe that the attorney general or the deputy attorney general has an obligation to follow the law and the Constitution, and to give their independent legal advice to the president."
And as everyone here should agree, that's exactly what Ms. Yates did Monday night whether you agree with it or not. This nation owes her a debt of gratitude. But Chairman Grassley, Senator Sessions has not demonstrated that he is capable of fulfilling the same obligation.
Before this committee votes to advance this nomination, it's important that we know whether Senator Sessions is able or willing to separate fact from fiction, and speak truth to power. I am not confident that he is and I will be voting against him. And I want to thank the chairman for his indulgence.
GRASSLEY: You went over eight minutes and Senator Cornyn didn't take eight minutes to state his position. Senator Sasse, you've got 45 seconds, please don't take one second more. Would you mind using the microphone?
SENATOR BENJAMIN SASSE (R), NEBRASKA: In the interest of getting to the vote, I'll submit my statement for the record. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
GRASSLEY: The clerk will call the roll.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: MR. Hatch.
SENATOR ORIN HATCH (R), UTAH: Aye.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Graham.
SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Aye.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Cornyn.
SENATOR JOHN CORNYN (R), TEXAS: Aye.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Lee.
SENATOR MICHAEL LEE (R), UTAH: Aye.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Cruz.
SENATOR TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: Aye.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Sasse.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Flake.
SENATOR JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: Aye.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Crapo.
SENATOR MIKE CRAPO (R), IDAHO: Aye.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Tillis.
SENATOR THOM TILLIS (R), NORTH CAROLINA: Aye.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Kennedy.
SENATOR JOHN KENNEDY (R), LOS ANGELES: Aye.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mrs. Feinstein.
SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: No.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Leahy.
SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: No.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Durbin.
SENATOR DICK DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS: No.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Whitehouse.
SENATOR SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (D), RHODE ISLAND: No.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Ms. Klobuchar.
SENATOR AMY KLOBUCHAR (D), MINNESOTA: No.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Franken. FRANKEN: No.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Coons.
SENATOR CHRISTOPHER A. COONS (D), DELAWARE: No.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Blumenthal.
SENATOR RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: No.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Ms. Hirono.
SENATOR MAZIE HIRONO (D), HAWAII: No.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Chairman.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Chairman, the votes are 11 yea, nine nay.
[11:20:02]GRASSLEY: The nomination is approved by the committee and will be -- UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Shame! Shame!
GRASSLEY: -- reported to the floor. Meeting over.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: -- the nomination of a man who will not protect the vulnerable. That's why we have an attorney general --
KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: You are now watching, right before that protester stood up, you saw the Senate Judiciary Committee, after quite a scene, approving Jeff Sessions as attorney general. Now his nomination will go to the floor for a final vote.
JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: I think if there's one word used to describe what we just saw, it's rancor. It was a party line vote in the Judiciary Committee, 11-9, with every Republican voting for Senator Sessions, every Democrat voting against Senator Sessions.
You heard a passionate speech from Minnesota senator, Democrat Al Franken just before the vote, some scathing criticism of Sessions as well. A lot of bad blood right there, which I think is reflected of what we are seeing in Washington overall.
Let's discuss of what we just saw in the overall situation. Joining us right now, former Republican senator from the state of Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum, and now a CNN political analyst -- actually first we'll go to Phil Mattingly, I lied.
Rick Santorum is here with us, but Phil Mattingly is in the capital right now. Phil, that was a touch hearing.
PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, no question about it. First and foremost, Rick Santorum in the Senate at one point, I just cover the Senate, guys. Senator Santorum will be able to describe this better than probably most. What we've seen over the course of not just the last couple of hours but really the last couple of days, this chamber, this body descend to a place that we haven't seen much recently. You saw the impassioned speech by Senator Franken, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse had one before him, this continues all day yesterday.
Where Democrats were more or less filibustering the committee vote on the nomination by giving lengthy, repeated speeches attacking Jeff Sessions' record, attacking his ability to serve as attorney general and John, you kind of made the point, this isn't just happening here.
This is happening across committees in the U.S. Senate, in the Senate Finance Committee where Tom Price, the Health and Human Services secretary nominee and Steve Mnuchin, the treasury secretary nominee, were supposed to be considered, Democrats boycotted yesterday.
Democrats tried to boycott today at which point the Senate Committee chairman circumvented the rules and held the vote anyway without Democrats there. It's something we haven't seen at least on a confirmation vote in a very long time if ever.
Then you have the Senate EPW Committee supposed to be considering the EPA nominee, Scott Pruitt, Democrats boycotted that as well. So you're seeing this across the board. A lot of rancor here, kind of not something we're used to seeing.
And I think what this really underscores, guys, is two things. First and foremost, Democrats say we've got a problem with these nominees, we don't feel like the process has given us the opportunity to properly examine these nominees, they want more time, but they don't have a lot of leverage to get that.
So they're pulling procedural kind of levers that they do have to slow it down. The other issue is more broadly, you look at what's happened over the course of the last week, really starting on Friday night with the executive order, continuing with the firing of Sally Yates, the acting attorney general, and now looking forward to a Supreme Court choice.
They, Democrats, are trying to figure out any way they can to kind of get in the way of what's happening right now, slow things down on these nominees, which when they get to the floor, guys, cannot be stopped.
Republicans can confirm all of these individuals on their own and kind of set the groundwork for the Supreme Court nominee, which Democrats can stop. That takes 60 votes.
Eight Democrats will have to go along for Neil Gorsuch (ph) to be approved in the U.S. Senate. You're seeing this all swirl around right now, guys. It's chaotic to say the least.
BERMAN: Behind you, Phil, as you're talking, there's a lot of action right now on Capitol Hill.
BOLDUAN: He didn't even notice because he's so focused and so good. Phil, thank you so much.
All right, let's bring in right now the aforementioned former Senator Rick Santorum, also he ran for president as well. Mark Preston is here, and Symone sanders is here as well, she was the press secretary for Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign. Guys, great to see you.
Senator, you sat here us with as we saw the tail end of that very passionate and emotional back and forth going on in the Senate Judiciary. Senator Sessions was waiting for this vote. The vote happened, it moves to the floor. Why did this get so heated? Less about Sessions, more about the White House?
RICK SANTORUM, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, I have to tell you, this was surprising, the level of rancor that I saw. And it's not that I haven't seen it before on other nominations or other things. The thing that really was surprising, this is a fellow member of the Senate.
I'm just telling you, you don't do this. This just doesn't happen, for someone who -- you could say it happened with John Tower, a long, long time ago. But Jeff Sessions is known, liked, he's an affable guy, people like Jeff.
For members who are collegial with him and have been for many, many years in cases, to be this rancorous tells you who is controlling the Democratic Party right now.
[11:25:09]Because this isn't Al Franken speaking, this isn't Sheldon Whitehouse. This is the left. This is the hard-core left demanding a pound of flesh and they're pushing their senators to go out there and ignore protocol, ignore tradition, ignore everything and just go after these people viciously.
And that's what's happening here. And if this is what to expect, this is going to be a brutal year for everybody in Washington, D.C.
BERMAN: Symone Sanders, I imagine you don't see it quite like that.
SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, what I see is, I think Senator Santorum and the rest of the Republicans totally forgot about the last eight years and the way they acted in Congress and the way they treated President Obama. So please spare me about your "I can't believe this obstruction" b.s.
The fact of the matter is that these Senators work for the people. The people are demanding that we stand up for our rights. A vote for Senator Sessions is a vote for the Muslim ban. That's just what it is.
And the Democratic senators on that committee today made their voices heard. They voted no and now it's going to go to the floor of the Senate.
And I would hope, I would hope everyone that has expressed concern about the Muslim ban, about what Donald Trump has done, I know they read "The Washington Post" and it seems as though Senator Sessions was one of the main architects behind that. A vote for Senator Sessions is a vote for the Muslim ban.
BOLDUAN: Senator, real quick on one other thing. You talked about a break of protocol in Senate Judiciary. There was a break of protocol in Senate Finance as well, you have Democrats who boycotted the vote on two nominations yesterday. Republicans then today changed the rules.
BERMAN: Burned down the House, suspended the rules altogether.
BOLDUAN: We don't need you. We're going forward. Are you OK with that?
SANTORUM: No, I don't like that. I don't like it. At some point you get this spiraling down and I think breaking rules are not -- is never a good idea. I can understand why they say, well, they don't have legitimate complaints, they can't do this, and this is unprecedented, not showing up for meetings. I think sometimes you've just got to hold your nose and let this thing play out a little longer. I think when you do break rules, it's just -- all you do is feed the beast.
BERMAN: Look what's happening to the Democrats now, the Democrats will say they regret right now changing the rules in the Senate and changing the filibuster rules there.
Mark Preston, it does seem like we have tension right now between two of my favorite sayings, what goes around comes around, which is what Democrats are saying, and two wrongs don't make a right, which is the Republican view of obstruction right now. I'm not so sure there's a way to reconcile this tension.
MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I think you're right. And I think, if I can knit together a little bit of what Senator Santorum said and a little bit of what Symone Sanders said is that it is in some ways unprecedented to not show collegiality to a sitting member.
I would go back, though, to Tom Daschle, who was going to be the HHS secretary, didn't even make it into the nomination because he really came under withering criticism because of some tax problems that he had.
So there is some kind of precedent as well, I know we talk about John Tower. So there is a little bit of precedent to that.
SANTORUM: A former member.
PRESTON: But to Senator Santorum's point, this is being driven by the Democratic base right now. Those in Congress need to reach out to the Democratic base. If you look at the way the Democratic Party is going right now, it's kind of listless, right. I mean, it's not going in a solid direction, it's kind of tilting to the side.
They don't have the votes in Congress right now. They lost to Donald Trump, which everybody thought was going to be a win. They don't have control of the House and Senate. They're losing statehouse seats across the country by the scores, governorships. So right now the party has to be rebuilt from the grassroots and to do that, though, you have to empower the grassroots, and to empower the grassroots you have to show some kind of leadership at the top.
BOLDUAN: And Symone, is that what you see, to use the word again, the rancor that you saw on this committee hearing, is that what you're seeing from Democrats in the Senate, to coin another one of -- to use another one of our favorite phrases, elections have consequences. Democrats in the Senate Finance Committee boycotting those votes yesterday. OK, but really, what can Democrats do about it?
SANDERS: Look, I think that Democrats have a responsibility to, again, do good research and ask good questions. The Democrats didn't boycott the committees yesterday or today because Donald Trump is the president. They boycotted because they did not have enough information from these nominees.
There were questionable things on the questionnaires and the need more info. We should not be just ramming through nominees like Betsy Devos or Senator Sessions. So what I think we're seeing is that the Democrats on the Hill are responding to the base.
The base has been pushing Democrats really to stand up, take a more forceful stand, and do some unprecedented things. Democrats have still been operating as though this is business as usual and it's not. The House is literally on fire and some Democrats are still trying to find the keys --