Biden’s Agenda Waiting on Next Maneuvers by Senate and Pelosi
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a recorded video on a television screen in the press briefing room at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Chris Kleponis/CNP/Bloomberg)

Biden’s Agenda Waiting on Next Maneuvers by Senate and Pelosi

The timing for both President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial and legislation to provide Americans with more Covid relief now largely depends on maneuvering by three of the most veteran legislative tacticians in Congress.

The first indication of how it will unfold may come Friday when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi holds her weekly news conference. Pelosi signed the single article of impeachment shortly after it was passed by the House on Wednesday. But she’s given no public clue since then about when it will be formally transmitted to the Senate, a step that triggers the trial.

Biden’s Agenda Waiting on Next Maneuvers by Senate and Pelosi

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Democratic counterpart, Chuck Schumer, have been publicly silent about how the Senate, which will be in nominal Democratic control after Inauguration Day, will handle the unprecedented case of trying a president after he leaves office while juggling legislative business.

What plays out over the next several days has major implications for President-elect Joe Biden, who is set to be sworn in along with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris five days from now. A Senate trial for Trump, which could begin no sooner than Jan. 20, risks delaying confirmation of Biden’s cabinet nominees and early legislative initiatives, including a $1.9 trillion covid relief package.

Biden made a plea for the Senate to divide its time between Trump’s trial and regular business, but McConnell hasn’t responded publicly and officials were still reviewing whether and how the chamber could do that.

Tom Daschle, who was the Democratic leader in 2001, the last time the Senate was spit 50-50, said starting the trial sooner rather than later and having the Senate split its time “would be the most logical and pragmatic” approach.

Though delaying the trial a few months -- as a few Democrats have advocated -- might seem like a way to speed action on pressing legislation, he said, it risks making it harder to forge agreements.

“The longer it hangs out there, the more political it becomes and the more divisive it could be,” said Daschle, who was also Senate Democratic leader during President Bill Clinton’s contentious 1999 impeachment trial.

The nine House Democrats who Pelosi appointed as impeachment managers to prosecute the case declined on Thursday to discuss what, if anything, they know about the timing or strategy for the trial.

Biden’s Agenda Waiting on Next Maneuvers by Senate and Pelosi

Democratic Representative Diana DeGette of Colorado, one of the impeachment managers, told reporters that she didn’t know whether the trial might last days, or weeks.

“It’s one article of impeachment and, I mean, it’s like, you see the president on TV inciting people to come up and try to stop the counting,” DeGette said. “So, it’s pretty easy facts, but on the other hand, there were a lot of things that happened.”

One House official said delaying a trial risks diluting the Democrats’ argument for urgent action against Trump over his actions stoking the mob that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6. It also might make it even less likely that 17 Republicans would join with Democrats to get the two-thirds vote necessary for conviction, according to the official, who asked for anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Biden’s Agenda Waiting on Next Maneuvers by Senate and Pelosi

Dividing Time

After Trump’s first impeachment on abuse of power and obstruction of Congress on Dec. 18, 2019, the House didn’t transmit the articles until Jan. 15, 2020, a span of 27 days. That trial began Jan. 16, 2020. Opening arguments didn’t start until six days later as the Senate wrangled over witnesses and evidence. It concluded Feb. 5 with the president’s acquittal, a span of almost three weeks.

During the trial, House impeachment managers and the president’s defense each were given 24 hours of floor time spread over three days to make their arguments. Another 16 hours of time was given for senators to ask questions.

Much about Trump’s present impeachment case is unprecedented.

When a sitting president is tried by the Senate, the Constitution says the chief justice presides, but Trump will be out of power. McConnell, in a memo to GOP senators, said it was unclear whether Chief Justice John Roberts would preside.

Biden’s Agenda Waiting on Next Maneuvers by Senate and Pelosi

“The chief justice has no comment,” Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said in an email when asked if Roberts would come to the Senate to hold the gavel.

If he doesn’t, Harris likely would be the presiding officer, which would give Democrats an edge in setting trial procedures in a 50-50 chamber.

Senate Rules

The procedures for an impeachment trial could be addressed in a Senate organizing resolution, Daschle said. That resolution could be passed by a majority vote though it would be better to come as close as possible to unanimous consent, he said.

“The preference is getting unanimous consent,” he said, but “the organizational resolution only requires a majority.”

The standing Senate impeachment rules may also provide an avenue for shifting back and forth between a trial and other Senate business. The rules set a noon start time for a trial, unless senators set another time, and allow the Senate to adjourn the trial and turn to other business.

Also still to be answered is the precise timing of change in Senate control, as Harris is replaced in the chamber by California Secretary of State Alex Padilla as well as Georgia’s certification of Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff as the winners of that state’s Senate runoff election.

Aside from the trial, Democrats will get more latitude in determining the course of events after Jan. 20. The Senate will be split 50-50, but Democrats will have control with Harris providing the tie-breaking vote.

Georgia officials expect to certify the victories by Warnock and Ossoff by inauguration day, though it’s still not clear how quickly they will be seated.

Padilla was appointed by California Governor Gavin Newsom to take Harris’s seat in the Senate. A person familiar with the discussions on when he’ll join the Senate said that the plan calls for Padilla to be sworn in after Biden and Harris take the oath of office on Inauguration Day.

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