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Impeachment standoff and Iran escalation dominate start of 2020 session

Briefings expected next week for members on killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Iraq

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., walks from his office to the Senate floor to officially open the Senate for the second session of the 116 Congress on Friday, Jan. 3, 2020. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., walks from his office to the Senate floor to officially open the Senate for the second session of the 116 Congress on Friday, Jan. 3, 2020. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Tension and division marked the opening of the second session of the 116th Congress with the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani and resulting escalation with Iran, as well as the standoff over an impeachment trial taking center stage in the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., opened the Senate session a little after noon by praising the killing of Soleimani.

“This morning Iran’s master terrorist is dead,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said that “no one should shed a tear” over the death of the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, but aired his dissatisfaction with the lack of specific authorization or notification about the operation. McConnell was briefed on Thursday evening and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was alerted during a trip to President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago compound earlier this week.

“I’m a member of the Gang of Eight which is typically briefed. We were not,” Schumer said, referring to the top Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and Senate, and the leaders of the Intelligence committees.

Graham is not a member of the “Gang of Eight.” 

Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence committee and a member of the gang of eight, said he was briefed today.  “I’ve had the opportunity to get a briefing on the intelligence that led to the recent strikes and I have profound concerns about the prospect for serious escalation,” Schiff said. 

[Iranian Quds commander’s assassination to follow Trump back to Washington]

Schumer asked about the legal justifications for the killing and preparations for anticipated retaliation, and doubted whether lawmakers would ever get answers to their questions.

“It is my view that the president does not have the authority for a war with Iran,” Schumer said.

Schumer warned of continued escalation and the potential for a full fledged conflict with Iran.

“This action may well have brought our nation closer to another endless war, exactly the kind of endless war the president promised he would not drag us into,” he said.

McConnell acknowledged that the operation that led to Soleimani’s death “may prove controversial or divisive,” and urged senators to wait to cast public judgments before reviewing the facts from administration briefings scheduled for staff on Friday and for all senators early next week. But that warning came after lawmakers had already been speaking on the incident for nearly 12 hours. 

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Impeachment stalemate

Both Schumer and McConnell pivoted quickly to impeachment, where little to no progress seems to have been made since the Senate departed for the holiday recess last year on the question of whether senators will hear from witnesses during the proceeding and when Speaker Nancy Pelosi will send over the articles of impeachment. In back-to-back floor speeches Friday, the two traded jabs that underscore the stalemate that has continued into the new year.

McConnell reiterated his intention to use the precedent of the Clinton impeachment trial, in two phases with opening arguments, a written question period and then a decision point on whether to call witnesses or not.

Schumer wants one resolution at the start of the trial that would address both the rules of the proceedings and an agreement on hearing from specific witnesses. He said if there isn’t a commitment up front for witnesses in the impeachment trial “the Senate will operate as little more than a nationally televised meeting of the mock trial club.”

He referred to McConnell’s proposal to wait to consider witnesses until after the managers and defense presentations occur in the Senate, a “poorly disguised trap.”

McConnell defended against criticism of what he called his “total coordination” with the White House on the trial strategy and the defense of the president, noting that Schumer is also coordinating with Pelosi.

“This fantasy that the speaker of the House will get to hand-design the trial proceedings in the Senate, that’s obviously a non-starter,” he said.

McConnell also pushed back against the idea that senators, who serve as jurors in an impeachment trial, shouldn’t already be drawing conclusions based on what they’ve seen during the House investigation and hearings.

“You better believe senators have started forming opinions. We sure have. Especially in light of the precedent-breaking theatrics that House Democrats chose to engage in,” McConnell said.

McConnell said that the Senate will return to its ordinary business and simply wait for House to send impeachment articles.

“Their turn is over. They’ve done enough damage. It’s the Senate’s turn now to render sober judgement as the framers envisioned. But we can’t hold the trial without the articles,” he said.

Pelosi has held the two articles, saying she wants details about what the Senate trial would look like.

“It may feel like we are no closer to establishing the rules for a Senate trial than we last met, but the question — the vital question of whether or not we have a fair trial — ultimately rests with a majority of the senators in this chamber,” Schumer said.

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