Pelosi's Impeachment Delay Can't Go On Forever

Pelosi's Impeachment Delay Can't Go On Forever
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Pelosi's Impeachment Delay Can't Go On Forever
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
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Nancy Pelosi has delayed sending articles of impeachment against President Trump to the Senate in order to pressure Mitch McConnell to hold a “fair trial.” Is this a wise strategy? Perhaps, but it’s one with limited utility, because Pelosi can’t hold out indefinitely.

So far, the House speaker’s maneuver appears to be succeeding in this respect: Though senators have time to stew during negotiations over trial arrangements, Democrats have remained unified while cracks are beginning to surface among Republicans.

McConnell has reportedly convinced Trump to shelve his narcissistic and politically dubious desire for a lengthy trial with lots of witness testimony. But he couldn’t stop Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska from publicly complaining about the majority leader’s expressed plans of “total coordination” with the White House. “When I heard that I was disturbed,” Murkowski told Alaska’s KTUU.

Murkowski may be only one voice, but she is one of three Republican senators — along with Susan Collins of Maine and Mitt Romney of Utah — who refused in October to co-sponsor a resolution condemning the House impeachment inquiry. It will take four GOP senators to join a unified Democratic bloc and forge a majority that can sideline McConnell’s plan and determine aspects of the trial, including the witness testimony of current and former White House officials whom Trump would rather remain silent, such as White House acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and former National Security Adviser John Bolton.  (Red state Senate Democrats such as Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Doug Jones of Alabama have kept the door open to acquitting Trump, but have echoed Minority Leader Chuck Schumer in calling for key White House witnesses.)

“How we will deal with witnesses remains to be seen,” said Murkowski, implicitly raising the prospect of a renegade faction denying the majority leader, in his words, “ball control” during the trial. (As to who might be the fourth rogue Republican, keep an eye on Colorado’s Cory Gardner, who, like Collins, is running for reelection in a state Trump lost.)

Murkowski, in characteristically balanced and cryptic fashion, was also critical of Pelosi for withholding the articles. But Murkowski may not have spoken out if Pelosi hadn’t elevated the debate over witnesses with her delaying tactics.

However, the speaker’s slow-walk strategy is double-edged. She can’t secure a victory regarding how the trial proceeds, unless the trial proceeds. And while Trump may grouse if he doesn’t get a splashy acquittal vote, McConnell doesn’t seem to mind. He would rather his blue state Republican senators avoid taking any controversial impeachment-related votes. “I’m not sure what leverage there is from refraining from sending us something we do not want,” McConnell crowed upon hearing about Pelosi’s delay.

Pelosi has already had her 31 Democratic members who represent Trump-won districts take a politically risky impeachment vote, in which neither a “Yea” nor “Nay” vote could easily satisfy all elements of their support back home. (Still, nearly every Democrat voted to impeach.)  The only way to spread the political risk is for blue and purple state Senate Republicans to take tough impeachment votes as well. That doesn’t happen if Pelosi keeps the articles of impeachment in her pocket.

Furthermore, allowing the Senate to avoid a trial gives Trump and his allies the ability to accuse House Democrats of playing politics with their impeachment power, a charge that could sting in those red districts. If the stalemate goes on for too long, vulnerable House Democrats could publicly break with Pelosi and demand the articles be sent to the Senate, without any deal in hand for how the trial will be run.

For Pelosi’s delaying tactics to be ultimately fruitful, Democrats will need to win agreement on some of their demands — which include having the White House hand over internal documents as well as securing witness testimony from four current and former White House officials — without making significant concessions.

McConnell has signaled a bit of flexibility, telling Fox News last week, “We haven’t ruled out witnesses.” But he has also said, “If we go down the witness path, we're going to want the whistleblower. We're going to want Hunter Biden. You can see here that this is the kind of mutual assured destruction episode that will go on for a long time.”

That’s not a swap Democrats can accept. Forcing the whistleblower to testify could put that person’s life in danger. Dragging Hunter Biden to the Senate would fulfill the objective Trump had in reaching out to the Ukrainian president in the first place: spotlighting his baseless accusation that, while serving as vice president, Joe Biden sought to squelch a Ukrainian investigation into the gas company on whose board Hunter served.

The question remains as to whether the uncertainty created by Pelosi’s delay allows more independence to ferment among Senate Republicans, prompting McConnell to cut a deal or prompting a bipartisan coalition to sideline his plan. One should never underestimate the speaker’s abilities, though her capacity to influence the Senate is untested. And time is not on her side.

Bill Scher is a contributing editor to Politico Magazine, co-host of the show “The DMZ,” and host of the podcast “New Books in Politics.” He can be reached at or follow him on Twitter @BillScher.

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