Impeachment trial could sideline Iran war powers debate

Confusion about calendar abounds

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell arrives for the weekly Senate Republican policy lunch Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell arrives for the weekly Senate Republican policy lunch Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 7, 2020 at 6:20pm

The confluence of a pending impeachment trial and the potential for military conflict with Iran has left senators with unusual anxiety and a lack of control over their own calendars.

Normally, a privileged resolution under the War Powers Act seeking to stop President Donald Trump from launching a war against Iran would take precedence over other Senate business — and a floor debate and vote would be expected as early as next week.

But these aren’t normal times since the resolution from Democrats Tim Kaine of Virginia and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois might not be at the top of the agenda next week. The impeachment trial of the president would trump even a debate over going to war.

The expectation Tuesday was that the Senate would be able to handle both issues, but if senators object to conducting legislative business during the impeachment trial, even the war powers resolution would have to wait.

“The process by which the Senate operates is [different] once you get into impeachment mode. The Constitution takes over, and our rules are overtaken by the Constitution,” Foreign Relations Chairman Jim Risch of Idaho said. “It’s very restrictive as far as what you can and what you can’t do.”

“The war powers isn’t a constitutionally prescribed process, so it just depends on when the articles of impeachment show up,” Intelligence Chairman Richard M. Burr of North Carolina added.

The two Republican chairmen expressed no concerns about Trump’s decision to order the Pentagon to kill Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Iraq. On Tuesday evening, the Pentagon confirmed that Iran launched “more than a dozen” ballistic missiles, targeting at least two U.S. bases in Iraq. 

The House is scheduled to vote later this week on a resolution similar to the one introduced by Kaine, but procedurally it is the Senate version that will be eligible for a vote first under the law setting the expedited procedures for war powers votes, unless the trial starts first. 

“Every member of Congress should vote and then be accountable for the question of whether another war in the Middle East is a good idea,” Kaine said in a Monday floor speech. “If we’re to order our troops and their families to run that risk, then it should be based on a public consensus, as reflected in an open congressional debate and vote, that war is in the national interest.”

Connecticut Sen. Christopher S. Murphy expressed the views of many Democrats when he said the Senate will need to find a way to have both debates.

“We have to have the trial. We have to do oversight on a matter of grave national security consequence,” he said. “I don’t think [Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell] wants to do either of them. I don’t think he wants to have a trial, and I also don’t think he wants to contest the president’s Iran policy.”

McConnell told his conference Tuesday that he would have the votes needed to move ahead with setting up the process for the first portion of an impeachment trial without support from Democrats.

The Kentucky Republican first made the comments during a closed-door GOP lunch before confirming in a public announcement.

“We have the votes, once the impeachment trial has begun, to pass a resolution essentially the same, very similar to the 100-0 vote in the Clinton trial,” he said.

Alaska GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski said she was on board with the McConnell proposal but suggested the parameters for the process needed to be made clear.

“I want to make sure we’ve laid out very clearly what this framework is, in terms of timelines and the ability to move to witnesses at the end,” she said.

The disagreement about impeachment trial procedure has led Speaker Nancy Pelosi to delay sending the articles of impeachment to the Senate, essentially giving the California Democrat power to influence the calendar of the other chamber.

While several senators said they thought Pelosi was holding her cards close to her vest, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer signaled Tuesday that the impeachment holdout may be nearing an end.

The New York Democrat said that by not sending over the articles earlier, Pelosi prevented McConnell from a fast dismissal of the articles, and the additional time has brought out new information, including the willingness of former national security adviser John Bolton to testify under subpoena and the release of administration emails related to the Ukraine affair.

“The speaker has said all along that she wanted to see the arena in which she was playing, when it came to a trial, so she could appoint impeachment managers,” Schumer said.

With McConnell’s announcement that he will proceed to implement the Bill Clinton model of an impeachment trial without an agreement to hear testimony from witnesses, the arena is becoming more clear.
Schumer said that Pelosi now “has some idea” of what the Senate trial will look like.

“I have great faith in the decision she will make,” he said. “I think she’s done a very, very good job, and it’s helped our case.”

Burr was among the Republicans arguing Tuesday that there is no way to define a witness list ahead of the opening arguments from both House managers and the president’s defense team.

“How can you decide about witnesses until you’ve heard from the prosecution and the defense?” Burr said. “You can’t prejudge what the prosecution’s going to make their case on or what the defense is going to make their case on.”

“I don’t need to hear from John Bolton,” he added. “I think the time for that to have happened was in the House. Now it’s up to the House to come make their case and for the president to defend.”

Senate Democrats were continuing to push the case for calling during the impeachment trial witnesses who did not offer testimony to House investigators, with Bolton at the top of the list.

“My feeling is that our best leverage right now over Republicans is votes, and it’s inside the Senate trial,” Murphy told reporters. “I think it’s going to be hard for a lot of them to vote against hearing testimony, especially from John Bolton. So my feeling is, let’s get to those votes.”

Maine Sen. Angus King echoed the view that Bolton and others with direct knowledge of the president’s handling of aid to Ukraine should be called to testify at some point.

“My principal concern is that we have witnesses, and whether we decide that at the beginning, the middle or wherever, I think that’s just critical,” said King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats.

“I don’t see how you have a trial without witnesses, particularly when one of the objections to the House case is that it’s not based upon people with firsthand knowledge,” King said. “So let’s talk to the people with firsthand knowledge.”

Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.