What to Expect When You’re Impeaching

12/13/19

The 2020 Senate calendar came out last week.  A couple of years ago, when I worked on Capitol Hill, the following year’s schedule was important information.  State work periods, also known as recesses, are the only time D.C.-based staff can really take more than a day or so off.  We could dress in business casual when the boss was back in the state and some offices even allowed jeans!  Dreaming of recess helped you survive the rest of the time.

The 2020 Senate calendar, issued by Majority Leader McConnell’s office, listed the usual recesses plus nice long summer breaks around the political conventions.   

But one thing really stood out:  January was blank!   

The blank month says a lot.  Leader McConnell is clearing the schedule for an impeachment trial.   

First, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer must agree on the rules by which the Senate will proceed.  You’d think the leaders should be able to agree to some basics based on the Clinton precedent.  For example, prior proceedings started at 1:00 p.m. each day.  Bigger questions on the rules could be more difficult.  There aren’t many bipartisan agreements these days.  Before the impeachment of President Clinton, Senators met in the Old Senate Chamber that was used until 1859.  In a room burned by the British and where three compromises held off the Civil War for decades, the Senators agreed on the rules under which President Clinton’s impeachment trial would proceed. 

The House will vote next week on the articles of impeachment.  Only the committees of jurisdiction and the leadership have been involved day-to-day in gathering and preparing the case, writing the articles for the floor vote.  Representatives who are not on those committees could go about their usual business – hearings, constituent meetings, media interviews – and need only navigate dozens of reporters and camera operators hovered around the impeachment hearing rooms.  

Come January, all Senators will be directly involved.   

They will sit silently at their desks every day except Sunday until the trial is resolved.  

Since Senators are in the talking business, this will be difficult.  For the Senators running for president, the six-day-a-week schedule could be a problem. 

I’m betting most Senate business will come to a halt.  Few judges are likely to be confirmed.  Impeachment sessions will convene after noon.  So it is possible the Senate will do some moderate legislating in the mornings.  Wednesday rumors hinted that the Senate may move to ratify the bipartisan North American trade deal.  But I am skeptical.   

Staff work for aides not handling judiciary matters could continue.  Staff in the Senators’ personal offices will continue to respond to mail and tally phone calls from constituents – Sisyphean tasks as calls, letters, and emails during impeachment will come in faster than responses can be returned.  

There is near unanimous agreement that there are not 66 Senators who will vote to convict.  But it’s unclear how long it will take to get there.  Leader McConnell has indicated he wishes to power through a speedy trial.  A senator or two has floated the idea of an immediate vote to acquit and call it done.  The trial of President Clinton lasted six weeks – from early January to mid-February in 1999.  What’s next?  Your guess is as good as mine.  The only thing we know for sure is the January calendar is still up in the air.