Senate Democrats break with Pelosi over impeachment trial

By Burgess Everett and Heather Caygle

Democrats are finally acknowledging that their efforts to extract concessions from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial are coming to an end.

Though Speaker Nancy Pelosi is still withholding the House’s impeachment articles from the Senate, Democrats’ hopes of swaying the GOP leader have dimmed after McConnell secured the votes in his caucus to move forward without an agreement on witnesses and documents.

And Senate Democrats say it’s time to begin the trial and end the delay.

“The longer it goes on the less urgent it becomes,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). “So if it’s serious and urgent, send them over. If it isn’t, don’t send it over.”

Several other Senate Democrats also showed their impatience with the Democratic leaders’ strategy. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said Wednesday morning that Democrats “should move on” and send the articles to the Senate, and Sen. Jon Tester of Montana said he’s “ready” for the trial to start.

“We need to get folks to testify and we need more information ... but nonetheless, I’m ready,” Tester said. “I don’t know what leverage we have. It looks like the cake is already baked.”

“I respect the fact that she is concerned about the fact about whether or not there will be a fair trial. But I do think it is time to get on with it,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.).

House Democrats — even vulnerable moderates — are uniformly behind Pelosi: No one is explicitly pushing her to move more quickly. Yet at the same time, there is a growing feeling that the fight between Pelosi and McConnell has run its course.

Leaving their first caucus meeting of the year, several House Democrats publicly defended Pelosi’s strategy, saying they believe the speaker has a plan, even if it isn’t clear to everyone else.

But some lawmakers said privately they are worried this sparring match with McConnell is no longer viable, worried about the political ramifications of dragging it out into the Democratic presidential primaries.

The longer the delays persists the more disruptive the trial will be to the five senators seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. The Iowa caucuses are scheduled for Feb. 3. The New Hampshire primary will follow about a week later.

And several Senate Democrats have said the pressure campaign has outlived its usefulness.

“We were ready on the day the articles were voted to conduct the trial,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who otherwise praised Pelosi for focusing on process over the past three weeks. “At some point, it’s appropriate to send them and in effect pass the baton to senators who are going to continue to insist on witnesses and documents.”

But Pelosi's allies encouraged Senate Democrats to consider the speaker has different considerations.

“I take the senators at their word that they‘re interested in proceeding because of the gravity of the president’s conduct. But the speaker has the additional responsibility to properly staff the prosecution," said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.).

McConnell is going to pass a partisan impeachment trial blueprint based on President Bill Clinton’s 1999 trial that defers the decisions on whether to hear new evidence until after the trial has begun, and as long as Pelosi delays McConnell made clear that he’s going to continue to confirm Trump’s nominees.

“Obviously, there are limitations to what the House can do,” said Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.). “We’re getting there.”

“Realistically there is a timeline, there’s a limit. The American people are going to want this to happen sooner rather than later,” said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.). “It did give us a couple of weeks, three weeks, to just keep pounding home ‘what are they trying to hide?’ But we can’t keep that drumbeat up forever.”

But House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer dismissed concerns about the impeachment standoff disrupting the presidential primaries.

“The politics of the United States are moving apace and that will continue. But that will not dictate the timing on doing what we believe is our constitutional duty,” Hoyer said.

McConnell has routinely mocked Pelosi’s delay and attempts to pressure him into cutting a deal with Democrats on witnesses and documents. On Wednesday, he read quotes from three members of the Senate Democratic Caucus on the floor asking for the trial to begin and said he was “glad Democratic Senators are losing patience with this.”

That might be overstating things: No Democrat would criticize Pelosi directly, and every Democratic senator interviewed on Wednesday praised her fight for a more comprehensive trial. Moreover, Pelosi is also juggling the impeachment decision with how to respond to Trump's tit for tat with Iran.

"This is all anybody is talking about, even privately," Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said of the Iran crisis. "I think everybody is upset to the point where impeachment seems so yesterday."

Still, there is an emerging consensus that Pelosi’s request on Tuesday for McConnell to further lay out his plans for the trial showed that the Democratic tactics are no longer producing results.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who McConnell quoted asking for the trial to begin, said the GOP leader has “basically answered that. It’s going to be the Clinton model.” And Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) said it’s an “understatement” to observe that McConnell isn’t giving an inch to either Pelosi or Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

“I’m not really sure what her thinking is. It’s really up to her. She controls the process, so I’ll let it to her judgment,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).

While McConnell has had time to organize his caucus in the interim between the House’s action and the Senate trial, Democrats have also developed an offensive for the Senate that they believe will put the next wave of pressure on Republicans. Schumer has vowed to force votes on witnesses and documents that could be painful for vulnerable senators.

And getting four GOP senators to break with McConnell at some point in the trial is where the party’s power lies now.

Pelosi’s “the one who’s going to be satisfied that she’s done all she can to have a real trial,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “The leverage comes down to what Sen. Schumer’s said repeatedly: Four Republican senators.”

Schumer defended Pelosi's approach Wednesday when asked about the scrutiny from his members.

"Pelosi is doing a very good job, and she is seeking to maximize our ability to get facts and evidence — witnesses and evidence," Schumer told reporters.

Kyle Cheney, Quint Forgey and John Bresnahan contributed to this story.