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Impeachment trial hangs over Biden's first days in office

Posted January 21, 2021 8:23 a.m. EST

— President Joe Biden is calling for unity, but with an impeachment trial of an ex-President around the corner, a long list of nominations still to be confirmed in the US Senate and Republicans already casting doubt on the need for another massive Covid-19 relief package, don't expect the mirage of bipartisanship to last long.

Biden's agenda isn't going to sail through the narrowly-held Democratic Senate. In the House, the new President will have to contend with competing factions for moderates and progressives who each believe they've been handed a mandate to govern.

Bottom line: The Biden team is just getting started and the US Senate is still getting organized. There's a lot of wrinkles to iron out in the days ahead, and the goodwill isn't going to last long, especially once lawmakers are confined to their desks starting at 12 p.m. ET every day dealing with an impeachment trial.

Important to watch Thursday: All eyes are on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and what she does with the articles. She has a news conference scheduled for 10:45 a.m.

The pending trial

The reality is no one knows yet how long this trial is going to be. Talks are ongoing. Democrats will hold their normal caucus call Thursday to talk about this. As CNN reported on Wednesday night, the aim is to move this trial along quickly. No one wants this hanging over Biden's agenda for the next month.

An expedited trial? Sure. But a reminder that it will still take a majority of senators voting to move to a vote on conviction to end this. That means rank-and-file members have to be satisfied that the trial has been long enough to be fair. Likely, leaders will have a goal in mind when they start, but they need a majority of the Senate to decide they've had enough. Democratic members are fully aware that they are setting a precedent here. If they move too fast in the name of trying to get to Biden's agenda, they risk setting a standard that a president (or ex-president) can be convicted in a matter of days.

As one Democratic source close to this process told CNN on Thursday morning "anything is possible, but people are just throwing things out there." Last week, the source said "people were floating a three-month trial."

Pelosi's plan

Pelosi has kept her plans on when exactly she will transmit the article of impeachment to the Senate extremely close. But, as CNN's Manu Raju reported on Wednesday night, there is talks she could transmit them soon and potentially the Senate could begin some of the ceremonial aspects of an impeachment trial as soon as Friday. For the last several days, the House impeachment managers have been working through their arguments and how they plan to lay out their case, but it's important to consider that we still don't know.

GOP factions

Some Republicans are ready to move on. Others want to hold former President Donald Trump accountable and the well-respected Republican leader Mitch McConnell isn't revealing to his colleagues if he'll vote to convict Trump.

CNN's Raju and Ted Barrett's story on Wednesday night captured the tension perfectly. Republicans are sending out a warning to McConnell that if he votes to convict Trump, there will be a price to pay.

Already, you've seen members of the House Freedom Caucus trying to oust their No. 3 GOP Leader Liz Cheney, a Republican from Wyoming, for voting to impeach Trump in the House. Those efforts are a long shot. But, the intraparty schism right now is real as Republicans sort out what the party is without Trump at the top of the ticket.

You are seeing Republicans approach impeachment with three separate views. You have a small number of Republicans who have signaled that they think the country cannot move on without holding Trump accountable. You have some Trump allies continuing to stand by him and a growing number of Republicans who don't condone the Trump's actions on January 6, but are arguing that moving ahead with an impeachment trial of an ex-president is a fruitless, damaging process. You even have some Republicans arguing it's not constitutional at all to impeach an ex-president. Republicans are expected to talk Thursday about this on a regularly scheduled conference call.

Biden's agenda

Yes, Biden has plans for another economic relief package and a massive overhaul of the country's immigration plan. But, those items aren't simply going to be picked up and passed without changes.

Aides and Democratic members CNN is talking to warn that Biden's plans are good starts, but there are items that progressives and moderates want to see added and subtracted. A new Democratic administration means that Democrats believe they have a real shot at finally getting some of their agenda items through.

As always, the complication comes when members begin really digging into these proposals and laying out their wishes. This is when some of the cracks that exist between what the progressives in the party and what the moderates in the party begin to show themselves.

Biden's team is well aware of how legislating works. It's why you have seen the transition hosting policy briefs with various factions of the House Democratic caucus. It's why you see a group of 16 bipartisan senators planning to meet in the next several days with Biden's Director of the National Economic Council Brian Deese.

But all you have to do is look at how many messages were coming out on immigration on Wednesday to understand that Biden's legislative proposals are just starting points. You had Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, talking on the floor about passing the DREAM Act, a more narrow proposal than the one Biden's team has laid out. And Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, suggesting that there was still more work to do to try and reach out to Republicans and get some of them on board.

On power sharing

The Senate hasn't officially passed their organizing resolution yet that establishes how many members are on each committee and how McConnell and Senate Democratic leader Schumer plan to run the 50-50 Senate.

Democrats earlier this week thought they were being generous offering McConnell essential a mirror of the 2001 agreement between Trent Lott and Tom Daschle that split committees evenly and allowed Republicans and Democrats to preside over the Senate.

The sticking point is still over the filibuster and McConnell's insistence that the organizing resolution includes some language to enshrine it. But progressive Democrats are making it clear to Schumer that he shouldn't cave on this even though it's unlikely Schumer would ever have the votes to do-away with the filibuster given that he'd need every one of his members to agree to it. It's putting Schumer in a tough position. In other words, this is adding even more complication to getting Biden's nominees through and voted on.

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