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Democrats grapple with how to impeach Trump without hindering Biden's agenda

Some in the party fear that an impeachment trial would prevent the Senate from acting on Biden's priorities. The president-elect is looking for a way out.
Image: Joe Biden
President-elect Joe Biden announced key Cabinet posts last Thursday at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del.Susan Walsh / AP

WASHINGTON — House Democrats are determined to impeach President Donald Trump in his final days for inciting a deadly riot in the U.S. Capitol. But some worry that forcing a Senate trial just as Joe Biden is taking office could hinder the president-elect's administration.

Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranking House Democrat, floated a way out over the weekend, telling CNN that the House could impeach Trump and wait 100 days to transmit the articles to the Senate to give Biden the time to "get his agenda off and running."

But others have strongly pushed back on that. One Democratic lawmaker, who asked to speak anonymously to offer a frank assessment, said a delay would be a "terrible idea."

The internal debate highlights the tension between two immediate Democratic priorities: Punish Trump for his role in inciting the mob, and give Biden a Congress on Day One that can confirm his nominees and act quickly on his top priority of an economic relief package.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told Democrats the chamber will vote Tuesday on a resolution to call on Vice President Mike Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment and remove Trump that way.

But there's no indication that Pence will comply.

The House will then meet on Wednesday to vote on impeachment, Hoyer said, according to his office.

Democratic leaders are expected to advance an article of impeachment introduced Monday that charges the president with "incitement of insurrection," although they can still edit the text or add more articles.

Hoyer, who is the second-ranking House Democrat, said the goal is to prevent the outgoing president from engaging in another "seditious act" before he steps down.

Breaking with Clyburn's proposal, Hoyer said the House shouldn't wait to send the articles to the Senate, which would trigger a trial.

A Democratic aide associated with the party's moderate wing said lawmakers agree Trump committed impeachable offenses, but that some have "serious concerns" about the practical impact of impeaching him now, particularly if it's unlikely the Senate will achieve the the two-thirds vote to convict him.

"How does this affect Joe Biden’s presidency in terms of his Cabinet and other legislation necessary to address the Covid-19 crisis, and in terms of his goal to unite the country?" said the aide, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly about strategy. "Of course this guy should be punished, but how can we do this in a way that doesn’t negatively affect a country that is still reeling from an ongoing health and economic crisis?"

The aide said some moderate Democrats also worry that impeachment would "harden Trump’s base and turn him into a martyr instead of keeping him on his heels with a fractured GOP."

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said Monday on Fox News that a "rush" toward impeachment would be "ill-advised" and lead to more division just as Biden is taking office and seeking to "heal the country."

Biden gets involved

A Quinnipiac poll released Monday found that 52 percent of registered voters believe Trump should be removed from office, while 45 percent say he should not.

Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., a chief sponsor of the impeachment article, said there should be no delay in acting.

"There is a broad consensus in our caucus that this president must be impeached and removed from office. He presents a clear and present danger to our democracy," Cicilline told reporters. "He incited insurrection against the government of the United States that resulted in the death of five individuals, dozens of people injured in violence here at the Capitol."

"I think that we should pass it and the Senate should take it up immediately," he said.

Biden has gotten involved with talks, trying to figure out a way to allow Democrats to move forward without forcing him to wait for his Cabinet to get approved.

He told reporters on Monday that his top priority is to advance an economic relief package set to be unveiled Thursday, and that he wants to "bifurcate" the two.

"Can we go half day on dealing with the impeachment and half day getting my people nominated and confirmed in the Senate, as well as moving on the package?" Biden said after getting his second dose of the Covid-19 vaccine. "So that's my hope and expectation."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., circulated a memo obtained by NBC News that suggests the earliest the Senate could receive the articles of impeachment is Jan. 19 — the day before Biden's inauguration.

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Anything earlier would require Republican support, which will likely be denied.

As Biden assumes office, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., is poised to take control of the Senate with the incoming vice president, Kamala Harris, serving as the tie-breaker in a chamber split 50-50.

But it's not clear if the Senate can realistically vote on Biden nominees while simultaneously holding an impeachment trial.

According to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, the Senate may require unanimous consent for some actions, like considering legislation, while an impeachment trial is ongoing. That means a single Republican senator may be able to block other business.

But the answer is likely up to the Senate parliamentarian.

"I haven't gotten an answer from the parliamentarian," said Biden, who spent 36 years in the Senate.