The House of Representatives had finished work for the year early last Thursday evening. Nearly all lawmakers had escaped to the train station or airport. The Senate was marooned in a lengthy quorum call across the Capitol Rotunda. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., graced the Senate floor around 6 p.m. to declare he and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., remained at an impasse over how to conduct an impeachment trial.
And then, near the Will Rogers Statue, just steps from the House floor, appeared three aides to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Two clutched gigantic bills, ready for President Trump’s signature. Another pushed a cart, stocked with another stash of legislation. Loaded onto the trolley was one of the “mini-buses” Congress had just approved, a spending measure which helped avert a government shutdown. They were wheeling the measures off the House floor, back to the speaker’s office or over to the Senate.
Watching the procession, someone wondered if the House had sneakily adopted the measure announcing the impeachment managers. Was it possible the articles of impeachment were loaded aboard the Senate-bound cart?
That was not the case. The House would have to vote on a secondary resolution to actually dispatch the articles of impeachment to the Senate and name impeachment managers. The House would be in session a handful of times over the next couple of weeks in brief pro-forma sessions – where the body would gavel in for a few seconds and gavel right back out. But, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., announced earlier last Thursday the House wouldn’t conduct any votes until Jan. 7.
The impeachment articles weren’t going anywhere. Pelosi still clutched them in an effort to secure Democrats’ demands for an impeachment trial.
And, with no planned votes in the House, the impeachment articles aren’t heading to the Senate any time soon. In 1998, the House approved a resolution to send articles of impeachment to the Senate just minutes after the House impeached then-President Clinton.
Washington has been atwitter over what Pelosi’s gambit could be by holding the articles. Let’s face it: no one really knows why Pelosi is holding the articles. Only she knows. But, here are some reasons various that learned Washington hands have suggested to Fox News as to why Pelosi isn’t sending the articles to the Senate just yet:
- Pelosi truly doesn’t think the Senate will conduct a fair trial. Democrats have argued for months that McConnell has conducted the Senate in an unfair fashion. Look at the scores of House-approved bills awaiting action in the GOP-controlled Senate. Consider how McConnell handled the Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland a few years ago. The Senate simply could dismiss the articles without any true adjudication. Not sending the articles would help Democrats curate their “legislative graveyard” narrative about the Senate with McConnell – who has billed himself as “the Grim Reaper” – as the person in charge. Democrats could weaponize this conduct against vulnerable Senate Republicans in an effort to win the Senate next fall.
- Pelosi has been holding the articles to secure Senate consideration of some of those House-passed bills – including the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement [USMCA]. McConnell said recently the Senate wouldn’t start on the USMCA until it finished a Senate trial. With no trial on the docket, McConnell would have no excuse not to move USMCA before mid-January.
- Impeachment has gone badly for the Democrats. Pelosi was forced into impeaching the president by liberals in her caucus. She’s wanted to apply a hand brake and halt the process now in order to protect vulnerable freshmen Democrats who supported impeachment.
- Pelosi feared a Senate trial. The president and many Republicans have said they wanted to summon her, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the Bidens and the whistleblower as witnesses in a Senate trial. Nothing good would come from a wide-open Senate trial for Democrats.
- Pelosi wanted to hold the articles of impeachment through the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. This would delay a Senate trial until the field of 2020 Democrats settled – and would protect senators running for president.
- Pelosi was waiting for the House to adopt additional articles of impeachment in the coming months – ranging from the president’s tax returns to emoluments. Then she’d send the entire slate of articles of impeachment to the Senate.
- By holding the articles, Pelosi was daring McConnell to advance some sort of resolution (which wouldn’t have direct parliamentary bearing on the articles of impeachment approved by the House) to condemn the House’s action. Support for such a resolution could be a challenge – and politically dangerous – for vulnerable Republican senators facing re-election in 2020: Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Martha McSally of Arizona and Cory Gardner of Colorado.
- By holding the articles, Pelosi could dictate when a Senate trial could begin. After all, the Senate is pretty much bound to go through the motions of a trial at least. Perhaps Pelosi could send the articles in the early fall – right before the presidential election.
- Pelosi has known how to get under Trump’s skin. Consider how Trump talked about how he wandered around alone at the White House last Christmas during the government shutdown. The president said just the other day he wanted a speedy trial. By holding onto the articles, Pelosi could deny the president his most prominent wish – and essentially rent space in Trump’s head. The president thought this would all be done by mid-January. Not now.
- Republicans may soon start to demand that the speaker send over the articles post-haste. Republicans repeatedly have talked about how unfair the House impeachment process was to the president. But, by holding the articles, Pelosi also could goad Republicans into what some saw as an overzealous defense of Trump.
- By stalling the articles in perpetuity, Pelosi could block the president from his chief wish: exoneration by the Senate. Holding the articles could trick Trump into a misstep and thwart him from saying the Senate rebuked what many Republicans called an overreach by the House.
- By keeping the articles in the House, Pelosi would maintain control, instead of Trump. McConnell wouldn’t have control either. With the articles of impeachment in limbo, everyone else would be off balance – except Pelosi.
- Pelosi held real concerns about a Senate trial and what such a spectacle could mean for the country. A wide-ranging, hyperbolic trial in a toxified climate truly could test the political guardrails for both sides.
Of course, these are all theories. Multiple House Democrats who spoke to Fox News indicated no one truly knew what Pelosi has been up to by holding the articles. They all simply offered theories along the lines of the points listed above.
This has been uncharted turf. A few weeks ago, Fox News asked someone well-versed in congressional parliamentary procedure if it was possible to withhold impeachment articles from the Senate. The answer was yes. But, the source scoffed, noting it would almost be absurd to go through the impeachment process – and then not send the articles to the Senate for trial. Even senior House Democrats indicated to Fox News last week they thought the House would send the articles to the Senate right away.
It may be absurd, but that’s where we are. All of Washington is now in suspended animation. And, that’s where it appears things will remain until early next year.