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Impeachment chicken: Pelosi, McConnell and the battle for leverage over a Senate trial

Democrats line up behind speaker’s power play as contours of process start to take shape

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., departs from a press conference on Capitol Hill on Thursday Dec. 19, 2019. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., departs from a press conference on Capitol Hill on Thursday Dec. 19, 2019. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

House Democrats are backing Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s power move to hold articles of impeachment in the House until the Senate agrees to what Democrats say will be fair procedures for a trial, but it’s unclear how long their patience for this game of chicken with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will last.

Pelosi announced the move at a news conference late Wednesday night after the House impeached President Donald Trump, and then briefly explained her thinking with Democrats at a meeting Thursday morning.

She did not specify how long the hold would last and refused to rule out that she may never transfer the articles.

Rank-and-file Democrats did not have advance warning, although that’s a strategy progressives had discussed.

“I’m not saying we have all the leverage in the world, but we certainly have some and we should use it,” Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair and Judiciary member Pramila Jayapal said. “Nancy Pelosi’s very smart on these things and I think Trump has never been able to defeat Pelosi in these battles.”

The leverage point, the Washington Democrat said, is that Trump wants to get the trial over with and be acquitted by the Senate.

Politically not having one at all could benefit several of McConnell’s conference members up for reelection in swing states because they wouldn’t have to vote on removing Trump from office.

House Democrats appear willing to give Pelosi the leeway to play hardball and secure some concessions, at least for a little while.

“I think it’s right to get an idea of what’s going to happen, but not let it stretch out with no end point,” Michigan Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin said. “The speaker discussed it with us and I believe she has a plan, but I hope the plan is expedient.”

Slotkin, whose district voted for Trump, said Thursday morning she was learning about the strategy “in real time.”

She said a delay could hurt her politically but she’s on board with the strategy to get clarity on the Senate process “as long as this doesn’t delay it more than a few days.”

Others seemed more patient.

Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips, who flipped a Republican seat but in a district Hillary Clinton won by 9 points margin, said he’s fine with an indefinite hold.

“If she — and the House of Representatives generally — doesn’t have confidence that it’s a trial that’s worthy of the gravity, then I think she should hold it,” he said.

All Pelosi told her caucus during its weekly whip meeting Thursday was what she told the press the night before — that she was not prepared to name impeachment managers until seeing what the trial process will look like. That decision she needs to make before the House transmits the articles.

Rep. Dan Kildee said the notion that the hold will be prolonged “is being overstated by a lot of folks,” adding, “I don’t even want to suggest it but some outliers have suggested a much longer period of time for some tactical purpose, I don’t think that anyone’s taking that seriously.”

The Michigan Democrat said Democrats aren’t telling McConnell what to do; they just want to know what the process will be so they can prepare their case.

Kildee said he hoped the Kentucky Republican can work out an agreement with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer. “But even if he doesn’t, even if [Republicans] come up with whatever the process is, we can deal with it. We just need to know what it is.”

Schumer and Pelosi met Thursday morning, and, for his part said afterward that he and Pelosi are “on the same page” about impeachment. “We want a fair trial,” the New York Democrat said, exiting their meeting.

McConnell is meeting with Schumer this afternoon about impeachment and said he is in no rush to see the House’s articles.

“If she doesn’t send them over, that’s fine with me,” he said.

On Wednesday night, Pelosi questioned McConnell’s interest in ensuring a fair process because of comments he made about taking his cues on trial procedures from the White House and admitting he would not be an impartial juror.

“This is a serious matter even though the majority leader of the United States Senate says it’s OK for the foreman of the jury to be in cahoots with the lawyers of the accused,” she said. “That doesn’t sound right to us.”

On Thursday as she spoke to reporters again she did not clarify for certain that the articles will eventually be transmitted but made clear that is her intention.

“We would hope that they can come to some conclusion like that, but in any event, we’re ready when we see what they have,” she said, noting she’ll name impeachment managers and transmit the articles to the Senate at that time.

Asked if her requirement for transmitting the articles to the Senate was a fair process, Pelosi demurred.

“We would hope there would be a fair process,” she said.

Trump and Republicans have accused Pelosi of playing political games.

“Pelosi feels her phony impeachment HOAX is so pathetic she is afraid to present it to the Senate,” the president tweeted Thursday just as Pelosi began her press conference.

Pelosi shrugged off the GOP complaints.

“Frankly I don’t care, what [Republicans] have to say,” she said.

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Pelosi’s bullishness comes in part from Democrats’ belief that the public will be on their side.

Rep. Eric Swalwell, considered a potential impeachment manager because of his work on the impeachment case in the Intelligence and Judiciary committees, cited recent polling he said showed 70 percent support for Trump to stop blocking witnesses and allow them to testify in a Senate trial.

“That’s pretty hard, I think, to defy if you’re McConnell,” the California Democrat said.

Japayal said Pelosi has time to let negotiations unfold as Congress is headed into a holiday recess and the Senate had never planned to start its trial until January.

“I think the moderates and our whole caucus believes that in these last few months that Pelosi has handled this all really well,” she said. “And we trust her judgment on the timing issue as well.”

Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.

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