As the US Senate prepares to Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, few are as wary of unintended consequences as the president’s successor.
Joe Biden, president-elect, will take office next week with a ambitious legislative program including Congress’ swift passage of a $ 1.9 billion stimulus for the pandemic economy.
But a combative impeachment trial would present an obstacle to those goals, according to William Galston of the Brookings Institution, who served as a domestic policy assistant to President Bill Clinton.
“I think it is very clear from what the President-elect said, not said, that this is the last thing he wanted – especially now,” said Mr Galston. “This poses a practical problem and a political problem.”
Now that Mr. Trump has been charged with “inciting insurgency” in the House of Representatives for whipping the mob that stormed the Capitol, the impeachment article must be “forwarded” to the Senate, where a trial will take place.
Mr. Biden openly worried how Congress will handle the impeachment process. After Mr. Trump was indicted on Wednesday, he issued a statement calling on the Senate to hold the trial “while also working on the urgent affairs of this nation,” including “getting our immunization program back on track. . . and our economy is going ”.
On a practical level, an impeachment trial would also mean a slowdown in the process of confirming cabinet appointees who require Senate approval.
This week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rejected Democrats’ demands to summon the Senate earlier for an immediate trial, meaning the Upper House will return next Tuesday, the last day of his term. The trial is scheduled to begin the following afternoon, immediately after Mr Biden’s inauguration, although some Democrats have suggested allowing a delay.
There are already signs of possible delays. U.S. media reported Thursday that Biden had asked Assistant Secretary of Defense David Norquist to head the department on an interim basis. He would occupy the fort until the President-elect’s candidate, retired four-star General Lloyd Austin, receives a waiver from the House and Senate that he needs because the post is normally held by a civilian.
Doug Heye, a Republican strategist, said, “We’re going to need a secretary of state, we’re going to need an attorney general, we’re going to need a CIA director.
“And we’re going to need it ASAP, especially given the vulnerabilities we have,” he added, referring to the attack on the US Capitol last week. “We don’t want to be in a situation where our opponents can take advantage of it.”
Matt Bennett, founder of the centrist Democrat think tank Third Way, said filling administrative positions was especially important given that many agencies were emptied in the dying days of the Trump administration.
“[Biden] needs their team in place, not only for the normal reasons you want your team to be in place, but also because agencies are barely functioning, ”Bennett said.
A prolonged trial in the Senate, Mr. Galston noted, would also mean “a slowdown in the legislative agenda which he and the people around him have clearly tried to put in place fast”.
In the wake of the assault on Capitol Hill, Mr Biden has tried to stay above the fray of the bitter impeachment debate. Two days after the riot, he made it clear that this was a matter for Congress, but that if they proceed to indict Mr. Trump, they should also “be ready to go.”
Nonetheless, Mr Bennett suggested that there might be some silver lining for Mr Biden if the media obsessed with Mr Trump’s trial rather than trying to follow every mistake the new administration made. “If the focus isn’t on Biden for a while, I think it’s probably all for the best,” he said.
But Mr Galston of the Brookings Institution countered that the lawsuit may make it harder for Mr Biden to fulfill his oft-repeated pledge to restore some bipartisanship in Washington.
The promise is at the heart not only of his hopes to unify the country after Trump’s years of division, but also of his chances of legislating. This is especially true in the Senate, which Democrats will soon control by the smallest of margins – a 50-50 split with Vice President Kamala Harris voting for the tiebreaker.
“The history of partisan courtesy in the Senate review of impeachment resolutions is not a long and happy one,” said Mr. Galston. “The risks are obvious, the opportunities hardly visible. The president-elect is doing everything he can to mitigate this.
Mr Biden suggested the Senate could ‘branch off’ the impeachment trial from normal Senate procedures, allowing the upper house to begin confirmation hearings and debate its first legislative agenda as it assesses whether to condemn Mr. Trump.
As Mr Biden told reporters earlier this week, that would mean the Senate would devote “ half a day to impeachment and half a day to have my people appointed and confirmed in the Senate, as well as ” to take action. [stimulus] package”.
Some lawmakers have said they believe such a bifurcation would be possible. “We are certainly prepared to do both at the same time,” Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democratic senator, told CNN Thursday.
Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator who caucuses with the Democrats, said the party “must show that we can walk and chew gum at the same time.”
“We need to impeach Trump. Yes. We have to deal with the nominees from Biden. Yes. We need to pass legislation that resolves the huge crises facing working families, ”he wrote on Twitter.
But others doubt that the Senate can multitask. “He’s having enough trouble doing one thing at a time,” Heye said.