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Trump Impeachment Trial Threatens to Eclipse Outset of the Biden Era

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 1/20/2021 Lisa Hagen
a man standing in front of a building: WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 12: U.S. President Donald Trump waves as he walks to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on January 12, 2021 in Washington, DC. Following last week's deadly pro-Trump riot at the U.S. Capitol, President Trump is making his first public appearance with a trip to the town of Alamo, Texas to view the construction of the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images) © (Drew Angerer/Getty Images) WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 12: U.S. President Donald Trump waves as he walks to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on January 12, 2021 in Washington, DC. Following last week's deadly pro-Trump riot at the U.S. Capitol, President Trump is making his first public appearance with a trip to the town of Alamo, Texas to view the construction of the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Joe Biden is looking to act swiftly now that he's sworn in as the 46th president with a series of executive actions on Day One, a push for Congress to quickly confirm nominees to top Cabinet posts and additional coronavirus relief as the U.S. death toll ticks past 400,000.

But Biden's early days – and possibly weeks – in office will be competing for the attention of Congress as the Senate prepares to take on former President Donald Trump's impeachment trial and whether to convict him of "incitement of insurrection" following the deadly attack on the Capitol earlier this month.

New presidents usually come into office with the time to enact their early priorities, set the tone of their administration and at least have some key members of their Cabinets confirmed. But Biden enters his presidency with twin crises – an ongoing pandemic and a crippled economy – and the fallout of the Jan. 6 riots that prompted the impeachment of his predecessor. And he took office Wednesday afternoon without any of his Cabinet appointees confirmed.

The timing of the Senate trial, however, remains uncertain and, at the earliest, could start later this week. House Democrats are still weighing when to transmit the article of impeachment to the Senate to formally trigger a trial, conscientious of how the time-consuming proceeding could hinder his agenda and the formation of a full administration. Democrats are especially eager to hit the ground running while they control – albeit with small majorities – both chambers of Congress for the next two years.

Biden wants the Senate to "bifurcate" its days – splitting time between installing his Cabinet picks and pursuing the impeachment trial. Senate rules stipulate that once the impeachment resolution is sent, the Senate will convene each afternoon with the exception of Sundays to complete the trial. Democrats believe they can accomplish both simultaneously, while some Republicans poured cold water on the Senate's ability to do other work beyond the trial.

But Democrats maintain the formal process will happen "soon," and incoming Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York reaffirmed the chamber's commitment to a trial while also noting that the Senate will be tasked over the next several weeks with Biden Cabinet confirmations and consideration of additional COVID-19 relief. Democrats want to quickly take up Biden's $1.9 trillion rescue package, which includes $1,400 stimulus checks, though the proposal faces hurdles in Congress since Democrats will likely need some buy-in from Republicans.

Schumer becomes majority leader late Wednesday afternoon once the last three Democratic senators are all sworn in. Vice President Kamala Harris, who was sworn in before Biden, will also serve as the president of the Senate and would cast a vote in the event of a tie.

"Let me be clear – there will be an impeachment trial in the United States Senate. There will be a vote on convicting the president for high crimes and misdemeanors. If the president is convicted, there will be a vote on barring him" from holding office again, Schumer said Tuesday. "The next several months will be very, very busy and a very consequential period for the United States Senate. Let us begin our work in earnest."

The Senate's schedule – and what Biden can achieve early on – are in the hands of Schumer and Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. The two leaders met Tuesday afternoon to discuss among other things a power-sharing agreement when the Senate becomes a 50-50 split and the logistics of an impeachment trial, though a resolution has yet to be announced.

On the first day back in session since the attack on the Capitol, the Senate made some headway on the confirmation process for Biden's Cabinet. The respective Senate committees held confirmation hearings for five of his nominees including for the State Department, the Pentagon and the Treasury Department.

Democrats are seeking to push through quick confirmation votes, particularly for top posts that deal with national security matters. Incoming Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez of New Jersey told reporters that he expects a committee vote on Secretary of State-designate Antony Blinken on Monday.

But for Biden's nominee to helm the Department of Homeland Security, GOP Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri said he'll oppose a quick confirmation for Alejandro Mayorkas, who testified Tuesday at his confirmation hearing. Hawley, who is facing major backlash for his objections to certifying Biden's Electoral College victory, cited his concerns with the incoming administration's positions on immigration. That means Mayorkas' nomination will need to go through both a committee and final floor vote.

Democrats are hoping to make further inroads on the confirmation process, especially as they embark on Trump's second impeachment trial within the span of 13 months. Even with the concerns of his trial looming over the Biden administration, Democrats maintain that they must hold Trump accountable even after he has departed from the White House.

Assuming all 50 Democrats are unified, it remains to be seen if they'll get the 17 Republicans needed to convict the president and potentially pursue a vote that would bar Trump from holding federal office again. Unlike the two-thirds majority needed to convict a president, the second vote would only need a simple majority.

Some Republicans don't believe Trump committed an impeachable offense and want the country and Congress to move on now that he's out of office. Others are casting doubt on the constitutionality of convicting someone who is no longer a sitting president, which would be an unprecedented move for the Senate.

But McConnell's stinging rebuke of the president from the Senate floor on Tuesday made it clear that more Senate Republicans are open to conviction this time around. At the first trial early last year, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah was the only Republican who voted to convict Trump.

More than a year later, McConnell is part of a growing number of Republicans who are in part blaming the former president for the violence at the Capitol. The GOP leader remains undecided on conviction but his openness to it illustrates the fractures in his party's relationship with their standard-bearer – and the possible shift toward a political realignment in the post-Trump era.

"The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people," McConnell said Tuesday. "And they tried to use fear and violence to stop a specific proceeding of the first branch of the federal government which they did not like. But we pressed on."

Once the trial begins, some Republicans believe impeachment would "displace" all of the Senate's business. Speaking to reporters from the Capitol on Tuesday, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas characterized House Democrats' decision to transmit the article of impeachment as one way that would "delay the confirmation of President Biden's nominees and Cabinet positions and prevent President Biden from asking for and receiving additional COVID-19 relief."

But Democrats counter that the GOP is presenting a "false choice." And they're signaling the need for pursuing the conviction of a former president while also looking toward the future of a new administration.

"We can do them at the same time," Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut told reporters on the Hill. "And you know we have an obligation under the Constitution to hold the president accountable but we also have to move forward to confirm nominees and fight the pandemic and revive the economy."

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