Senate Democrats Decide to Shut Up and Let Nancy Pelosi Do Her Thing

Nancy Pelosi and Dianne Feinstein.
Nancy Pelosi and Dianne Feinstein. Photos by Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images and Michael Brochstein/Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media via Getty Images.

On Wednesday, the chorus of Senate Democrats objecting to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s impeachment tactics grew louder. For weeks, Pelosi has refused to send the two articles impeaching President Donald Trump to the Senate until she understands the rules of the Senate trial. Several Democratic senators called on Pelosi to send the articles over in recent days, most notably Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who sent a message to Pelosi through reporters: “If it’s serious and urgent, send them over. If it isn’t, don’t send it over.”

On Thursday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi made her plans clear: She’s not budging. “I’ll send them over when I’m ready. And that will probably be soon,” Pelosi said at her weekly news conference, indicating that she still wanted to see a concrete proposal from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for Senate trial rules before the articles would advance. “Now we want to see what they’re willing to do and the manner in which they will do it.”

The Democratic senators seem to have received the message. Within hours, many of her critics seemed to fall back in line.

Feinstein on Thursday morning was still criticizing the speaker, saying, “I don’t quite know what the strategy is, but it doesn’t—if you’re going to do it, do it, if you’re not going to do it, don’t. And obviously, they’re going to do it so I don’t understand the delay.” By Thursday afternoon—after McConnell had used Feinstein’s statements and those of other Democrats to attack Pelosi—she had changed her tune. “My comments on this have been misunderstood,” Feinstein said, according to Politico. “She’s going to send them and it’s her decision.”

“We have plenty to do, and the speaker will send them over when she’s ready to send them over,” Feinstein emphasized in an interview with NBC News.

NBC News further reported that other previously critical voices, such as Sens. Joe Manchin and Richard Blumenthal, “also took a step back Thursday, saying the decision was up to Pelosi.”

In another example, Sen. Chris Coons on Wednesday could not have been more explicit in telling reporters, “I do think it is time to get on with it.” Shortly after Slate requested whether Coons stood by this position given the statements of his other colleagues, he tweeted, “Speaker Pelosi will decide when to send the articles, not any member of the Senate. I’m ready for the Senate to begin the trial, but I absolutely understand why [the speaker] is working to ensure this is a *fair* trial with testimony from relevant witnesses. That is important.”

Pelosi does not seem to be withholding the articles because she genuinely does not understand McConnell’s plan. The majority leader has already laid out what he wants to do, announcing on Tuesday that he has the votes to block witnesses at the outset of the trial. Speaking on the Senate floor on Thursday, McConnell took things even further, suggesting that the Senate had already presented and voted for his preferred trial format. (It has not.)

“This week, a majority of the Senate stepped forward to make it perfectly clear that this conversation is over,” McConnell said. “A majority of this body has said definitively that we are not ceding our constitutional authority to the partisan designs of the speaker.”

McConnell hasn’t unveiled rules for the Senate trial, much less passed them via a majority vote of the Senate. The majority leader claims he has the votes to proceed under the rule set that governed President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial in 1999. McConnell surely is good at counting votes and uniting his caucus, but just because he says he has the votes he needs doesn’t mean “a majority” of the Senate “has said” anything “definitively.”

Pelosi’s current gambit appears to be designed to force McConnell to actually go ahead and formally present a trial format, a vote that ultimately would fall along deeply partisan lines, unlike the Clinton rules, which were passed unanimously after negotiation between the two parties. By forcing McConnell to present the rules before she sends the articles, Pelosi would keep the press guessing as to what her next move will be, heighten the drama around any vote on a rules resolution, highlight the blatant cover-up of a trial that doesn’t include witnesses or documents, and put the spotlight on the vulnerable Republican senators who have indicated they support the unpopular trial format of one without witnesses.

In the meantime, new shoes keep dropping in Ukraine affair, such as last month’s revelation that the Office of Management and Budget ordered a hold on hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine just 91 minutes after Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden and the Democratic National Committee. There are many such outstanding shoes that could fall in the days ahead if Pelosi continues to hold onto the articles. First, former National Security Adviser John Bolton has said that he would testify about Trump’s alleged abuse of power if he were subpoenaed by the Senate, which demands the question of what he would do if he received a similar subpoena from the House. Second, pending federal appeals could determine whether White House officials, who have so far been obstinate in the face of congressional subpoenas, can be compelled to testify. What’s more, indicted associate of Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, Lev Parnas, is reported to be sending materials to the House relevant to impeachment.

The president and his allies, meanwhile, seem to be incredibly anxious to get the trial started and over with. Giuliani tweeted on Thursday that “The Supreme Court should step in and rule this impeachment unconstitutional, to prevent a precedent from forming which would allow the House to overstep its bounds and impeach for policy differences or political leverage.” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was forced on Thursday to answer questions about his own association with Parnas. Trump’s tweets on Thursday indicated that he remains a ball of frustration over Pelosi’s trial delay. And McConnell was wishfully telling his Republican colleagues that he expected the articles as soon as Friday, though Politico reported that he acknowledged he does “not have inside intelligence” as to Pelosi’s plans.

The Senate majority leader has repeatedly said that he doesn’t consider Pelosi to have any leverage by withholding impeachment articles, but his comments on the floor on Thursday belied that argument. He said that Pelosi and future speakers shouldn’t be allowed to “conjure up this sword of Damocles at will and leave it hanging over the Senate unless we do what they say.” (The majority leader’s office did not respond to a request from Slate to comment on how he could square the notion that Pelosi has no leverage with the idea that Pelosi is holding a “sword of Damocles” over his chamber.) McConnell is right to invoke the metaphor about the sword of Damocles. As long as Democrats stay resolute and hold off on transmitting articles, they keep a Senate trial in their pocket until new and further damning evidence emerges or until Trump commits another abuse of his office.

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