Democrats split on impeachment trial timing, as White House says Senate should ‘multitask’

Biden signaled he was exploring ways to advance plan to tackle dual health, economic crises while still pursuing impeachment

Democrats are divided about the timing of former President Donald Trump's impeachment trial in the Senate, worried it could hamstring President Biden's ability to implement his agenda in the early days of his administration. 

Absent a broader agreement among leadership, Senate rules dictate that during impeachment, which often lasts for weeks, senators must meet six days a week, taking only Sunday off, potentially hindering the new administration. Biden signaled that he was exploring ways to advance his plan to tackle the dual health and economic crises while still pursuing impeachment. 

"We are confident that, just like the American people can, the Senate can also multitask and they can do their constitutional duty while continuing to conduct the business of the American people," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday, hours after Biden's inauguration. "He's going to leave the mechanics to Congress on how to moves forward with impeachment."

While Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has indicated that he's open to establishing a new set of rules that would allow lawmakers to split time between the trial and the legislative business of confirming Biden's nominees — "we've got to move the agenda as well," he said recently — it appears unlikely that Republicans will support such a move. 

"Nope," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, tweeted in response to Psaki saying the "Senate can multitask."

That puts Democrats in a bind, forcing them to decide whether to prioritize a second impeachment trial for Trump, whose presidency ended on Wednesday, or hit the ground running on Biden's agenda while they control both chambers of Congress for the next two years.

BIDEN SWORN IN AS 46TH PRESIDENT, SAYS 'DEMOCRACY HAS PREVAILED' IN INAUGURAL ADDRESS

House Democrats, joined by 10 Republicans, voted to impeach Trump last week on a charge of incitement of insurrection after the violent attack on the Capitol that left five people, including a U.S. Capitol Police officer, dead. They are still weighing when to send the article of impeachment to the Senate to formally trigger a trial. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has indicated it will be "soon."

Several Democrats have argued that they should push to quickly confirm Biden's nominees to top Cabinet posts and pass another coronavirus relief package as the U.S. death toll surges past 400,000 rather than focusing on impeaching a president who's already out of office. 

"My clear preference is to create room for nominations and legislation," Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said this week. "I’ll defer to leadership, but I don’t know that we have to start the trial right after the inauguration."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., called impeaching Trump a "moot question" because his term ended on Wednesday.

"I think it’s a moot question — this president is leaving office," Feinstein told reporters this week. "So it won’t have any practical application. But whatever happens, is fine with me." 

BIDEN TO SIGN 17 EXECUTIVE ORDERS, ACTIONS ON FIRST DAY IN OFFICE, REVERSING TRUMP POLICIES, RESTORING OBAMA-ERA PROGRAMS

Meanwhile, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a key moderate who's expected to become a powerful member in the 50-50 divided Senate, said earlier this month that an impeachment trial after Trump leaves office "doesn’t make any common sense whatsoever." 

"I was concerned about having the impeachment at the time we needed to put our government back together and build confidence back in our government," he said Tuesday, calling on Biden to "put that stability back and build confidence back."

But Schumer, speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday, maintained that lawmakers have a "solemn responsibility to try and hold Donald Trump accountable for the most serious charge ever levied against a president: the incitement of an insurrection against the United States of America."

He indicated that Democrats had already decided to move forward with a Senate trial, although he did not address specific timing. 

"There will be an impeachment trial in the United States Senate. There will be a vote on convicting the president for high crimes and misdemeanors," he said. "And if the president is convicted, there will be a vote on barring him from running again."

At least 17 Republicans would have to join all 50 Democrats to convict Trump. From there, lawmakers could vote to bar him from ever holding public office again with a simple majority. 

BIDEN, 78, BECOMES OLDEST PRESIDENT IN AMERICAN HISTORY

It's highly unlikely — although not out of the question — that a trial could start this week. But Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., still need to work out a universal operating agreement for the 50-50 Senate, where Vice President Kamala Harris will be able to cast tie-breaking votes. Their pact on how to run the upper chamber could ultimately dictate when a trial starts.

On the first day back in session since the Capitol insurrection, the Senate made some progress on the confirmation process for Biden's Cabinet, with hearings for five of his nominees including the Treasury Department, the Pentagon and the State Department. 

Democrats are aiming for the quick confirmation of several nominees, particularly those that will deal with national security matters. So far, only one of Biden’s nominees — Avril Haines as director of national intelligence — has been confirmed.