Impeachment trial could knock Biden virus aid plan off course


The impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump appears likely to interfere with Democratic plans to quickly get a COVID-19 relief bill to President Joe Biden’s desk. Just how much of a hindrance remains to be seen.

Impeachment trials in the past have dominated Senate action, leaving little energy or time for anything else. During the 21 days of Trump’s first impeachment proceedings last year, and during the 36-day trial of President Bill Clinton in early 1999, no other substantive business was conducted.

The time allotted to Trump’s latest proceedings, involving one article of impeachment that Speaker Nancy Pelosi will transmit on Monday, could go a little quicker than the proceedings involving two articles in the earlier Trump and Clinton cases. Regardless, the trial won't be helpful for meeting Democrats’ target of passing a coronavirus relief package by March 14, when enhanced unemployment benefits start to run out. 

The quickest route to passage would be a bipartisan deal that attracts the support of at least 10 Senate Republicans to get past the 60-vote filibuster threshold.

In announcing an agreement on the impeachment trial's timeline Friday, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer said there’s a window for action on other business, including potentially a virus aid package, before the trial formally begins on Feb. 9. To that end, Biden’s National Economic Council director, Brian Deese, is set to meet with 16 senators from both parties Sunday to discuss the president’s aid proposal.

But Republicans in that group have already been pushing back on the $1.9 trillion price tag and provisions like a proposed minimum wage increase, and the impeachment proceedings add another layer of complexity. Deese acknowledged as much in a Friday news conference while cautioning the Senate to try to walk and chew gum simultaneously, given the stakes. 

“We are facing right now a period of multiple crises. And what we’re going to need is to be able to act on multiple fronts,” Deese told reporters. “We understand ... that the Senate has a constitutional obligation in this context. But we also have these pressing economic and pandemic priorities as well.”

One person with knowledge of the plans said Democrats want to see if there is genuine GOP interest in supporting the plan, and how much of it they could back. Republicans in the group have suggested they favor a narrower package.

“My focus is to see where’s the need, and let’s make sure that the numbers are real based upon need, as opposed to simply looking for more stimulus,” Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who will be at the Sunday meeting, said on Friday.

‘Too unwieldy’

If Democrats can’t woo enough GOP backing, they’ve said they’re ready to use the budget reconciliation process to pass a relief package with simple majorities if necessary. That process is a complex and cumbersome one, however, with numerous procedural hurdles that impeachment would get in the way of.

Marty Paone, a Senate rules expert who worked as a top Democratic floor aide for three decades, said it would be extremely difficult for the chamber to process budget measures during the impeachment trial.

“You would not get much done each day chipping away at a budget resolution during an impeachment trial,” Paone said. “It would be too unwieldy in my opinion to try and shoehorn in a budget resolution.”

The ability to use budget reconciliation starts with adoption of a budget resolution laying out deficit targets for authorizing committees to meet when they draft their pieces of the package. A motion to proceed to a budget resolution can’t be filibustered, nor can final adoption; but the process requires up to 50 hours of debate and then a “vote-a-rama” of amendment votes that are limited only by senators’ stamina.

Typically, once the motion to proceed is adopted, the Senate stays on the budget resolution unless there’s unanimous consent to set it aside. But an impeachment trial would supersede budget consideration. 

Since the current plan is for the House to adopt a budget resolution first and send it to the Senate, it’s not clear there’d be time to complete the required procedural steps before the impeachment trial starts. The House won’t be in session for votes next week, so the earliest that chamber could go to the floor to vote on a fiscal 2021 budget blueprint would be the week of Feb. 1. 

Even if the Senate was able to quickly get onto the House’s budget resolution, assuming it was adopted in that chamber, there are dilatory tactics Republicans could employ to delay action on the measure. They could, for example, potentially force a series of evening votes on motions to reconvene in the morning before the trial day begins.

Since half of the 50 hours of debate on a budget resolution is controlled by each side, Democrats could in theory yield back most of their 25 hours to expedite the process. But there’s still the vote-a-rama process to contend with, and it has gone into multiple days of amendments in the past.

Paone, now with Prime Policy Group, a lobbying firm, said action on a budget resolution could theoretically occur in the morning before the trial’s start time or late at night.

But aside from perhaps a nomination vote or two during those times, not much is likely to get done, Paone said, even on a privileged matter like a budget resolution. “Impeachment trials have a way of sucking up all the air out of the room,” he said. 

Paone also pointed out this trial may be more difficult to conduct because of the uniqueness of conducting the proceedings during COVID-19. 

And even in the absence of major distractions like impeachment, it usually takes the Senate a week to process a budget resolution. There’s also the Presidents Day recess, currently scheduled for the week of Feb. 15.

Only after the budget resolution is adopted by both chambers could lawmakers take up the actual reconciliation bill carrying coronavirus relief. At that point it could easily be March, giving Democrats very little time to pass the measure in both chambers before unemployment benefits run out.

Setting parameters

Another question is how long the trial will last.

Bill Dauster, a deputy chief of staff for former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said while he thinks in today’s Senate “a determined majority” could produce an expedited trial, “impeachment is undeniably a massive time suck if your priority is confirming nominees or legislating.”

Dauster said it’s easier for the majority to set the rules for impeachment now than it was when Clinton was impeached. Then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., “felt that they had to negotiate out those rules,” he said.

But when the Senate tried Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, Dauster said, then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “shoved his rules for the Trump impeachment through the Senate over the objections” of Schumer, D-N.Y., the minority leader at the time, who wanted to call witnesses but was denied the opportunity. 

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