Pelosi Imposes a Cost on McConnell: Speaker’s Strategic Move Puts Senate Republicans on the Spot on Impeachment Trial

Last night, the United States House of Representatives voted to impeach Donald Trump on abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Republicans and the White House fumed at the passage of the articles of impeachment, but Congressional Republicans, Donald Trump, and their cheerleaders in the alt-right media openly expressed optimism that after the House vote, the process would move to the Republican-controlled Senate for a trial, and Trump would be quickly acquitted.

They had reason to be hopeful. Two Republican senators who would be at the center of the trial in the Senate, Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (being challenged by Democrat Amy McGrath in 2020) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (2020 challenger: Democrat Jamie Harrison), had both openly ripped off the pretense of being impartial jurors and committed to violating the oath they will be taking as part of the Senate trial in order to make the process as much a triumph for Trump as possible. McConnell has openly discussed being in cahoots with the White House Counsel in what has been likened to a jury foreman coordinating with the defense counsel. Graham has flaunted it clear that his mind is made up.

The outcome of the trial was always a near-certainty. But under McConnell and Graham, the process too appeared a rigged, foregone conclusion.

Speaker Pelosi and the House Democratic leadership, however, appear unwilling to submit to that process without any consequences for the Republicans. At a press conference after the impeachment vote last night, Speaker Pelosi, flanked by the chairs of the six committees that came together for the impeachment, announced that the next step, which is to transmit the articles to the Senate and appoint impeachment managers (in effect, the prosecutor), would hinge on the specific trial process the Senate agrees to by resolution. She and her leadership team had yet to discuss the specifics, the Speaker said, but the Senate trial must be fair, she warned.


The House Democratic leadership is coalescing behind this strategy. Majority whip James Clyburn said this morning that the House will wait “as long as it takes” for the Senate to set up its process before sending over the articles. Clyburn turned Republican accusations of a ‘kangaroo court’ on its head, and said it would be ‘crazy’ to walk into a setup. Republicans have complained for the past three months about process, and it appears that the shoe is now on the other foot.

The timing is impeccable. McConnell had hoped to conduct a quick trial in January, which is optimal for his members in an election year. But not only is Pelosi in no hurry to accommodate him, Trump himself is reported to be pining for a more elaborate, dramatic trial. This could set up a circus in the Senate, as the White House might push for more drama given Pelosi’s position.

Although aimed at McConnell nominally, the real target for Speaker Pelosi and the House Democratic leaders are Republican senators defending their seats in close races (and especially in blue states) next year - and, the only Republican senator who’s had the political capital to speak up against Trump so far, Utah’s Mitt Romney. McConnell and Graham are uncomfortably close to their Democratic challengers in recent polls, but senators like Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska may hold important sway in process votes, like the one Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer plans to force allowing for witnesses to be called.

While process votes are mostly discardable for most people, it can be an important way for people like Romney, Collins and Murkowski to split the baby: vote with the Democrats for a fairer trial, and vote to acquit to pacify the Republican bases in their states. Schumer is already going to force the question, and Pelosi has now given them another reason to vote for a fair trial.

But it doesn’t end there.

Another target for the move by Democratic leadership is Donald Trump himself. Although McConnell had hoped to conduct a quick trial in January, which is optimal for his members in an election year, Trump himself is reported to be pining for a more elaborate, dramatic trial. This could set up a circus in the Senate, as the White House might push for more drama given Pelosi’s position, and its biggest supporters may just fall for it.

Not only has Pelosi held the essentially the entire Democratic caucus together on impeachment without whipping the vote, she is now using the process post-vote to turn the heat up on McConnell and the Senate Republicans. There’s early indications that the strategy is already working, as McConnell responded to Pelosi by outing his preference for not having a trial at all. McConnell might not be anxious to have a trial early and quickly, but his members, especially the ones in tough re-election races, will be.

Ultimately, the Senate has the ‘sole’ power to try a federal official who has been impeached, just as the House has the sole power to impeach. But the Senate cannot hold a trial until the House transmits the articles of impeachment to the Senate and appoints impeachment managers for the Senate trial, and that process is entirely in Nancy Pelosi’s control. Congress is all about process and rules, and Pelosi is a master at it.

At the end of the day, Speaker Pelosi’s power to affect the actual trial in the Senate is limited, and she and the House cannot force fairness in a process the Republican majority in the Senate has preordained.

What she can do is impose a cost for their intransigence, and that’s what she’s doing.

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