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This week: Impeachment spotlight shifts to the Senate

Impeachment is heading to the Senate after a weeks-long delay sparked by a standoff between Democrats and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a “Dear Colleague” letter that she would transmit the articles and appoint impeachment managers this week, paving the way for a trial to start as soon as Wednesday. 

Pelosi didn’t specify in her letter what day she will send the articles, but indicated that Democrats will discuss next steps during their caucus meeting on Tuesday. That leaves the door open to sending the articles any time between Tuesday afternoon and Thursday; the House is not expected to be in session on Friday. 

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“I am very proud of the courage and patriotism exhibited by our House Democratic Caucus as we support and defend the Constitution. I have asked Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler to be prepared to bring to the Floor next week a resolution to appoint managers and transmit articles of impeachment to the Senate,” Pelosi wrote. 

Pelosi has kept who she plans to tap to be impeachment managers under wraps. Some speculate House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who helped lead the impeachment inquiry efforts, is a likely choice. 

But the letter marked the end of an impasse between Pelosi and McConnell, with House Democrats repeatedly saying they wanted more details about the rules governing the upcoming Senate trial. Republicans are still haggling over the rules resolution, which is not expected to be unveiled until after articles are received in the Senate. 

McConnell announced last week that he has the 51 votes necessary to start a trial and punt any deal on potential witness testimony until after opening arguments and questions from senators. Democrats had wanted a deal at the outset that tackled both the rules and an agreement on calling specific witnesses. 

“A majority of the Senate has decided that the first phase of an impeachment trial should track closely with the unanimous bipartisan precedent that all 100 senators supported for the first phase of the Clinton trial back in 1999,” McConnell said. 

Under the Senate’s impeachment rules, the trial will start the day after the articles are sent to the Senate, unless that’s a Sunday, by 1 p.m. It’s expected to run six days a week and likely last between two to four weeks. 

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The first few days of the trial are expected to be focused on swearing in Chief Justice John Roberts, a reading of the charges and administering an oath to all 100 senators. 

With 67 votes for conviction President Trump is all but guaranteed to be acquitted by the GOP-controlled Senate at the end of the trial. 

But there is still the potential for wild cards, including the open question of whether or not any witnesses will be called. 

Democrats are expected to force votes on the issue, as well as a request for documents related to the delayed Ukraine aid, at least twice in the trial: At the start and mid-trial. 

Though the votes at the start of the trial are likely to fall short after GOP senators lined up behind McConnell’s strategy, a number of potential swing votes have been tight-lipped about whether they will support calling witnesses after the first phase of the trial. 

Democrats want to call four witnesses: former national security adviser John Bolton, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Michael Duffey, a top Office of Management and Budget official and Robert Blair, a senior adviser to Mulvaney. 

“Leader McConnell will do everything he can to divert attention from that focus on witnesses and documents. He knows that his senators are under huge pressure not to just truncate a trial and have no evidence. That it will play very badly in America and back home in their states,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said last week. 

To call a witness Democrats will need to peel off four GOP senators, a potentially herculean task given how unified the caucus has been behind McConnell, and Trump, so far on impeachment. 

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told the Bangor Daily News that she is working with a “fairly small” group of senators to ensure that an initial resolution on the trial rules allows for witnesses.

“I am hopeful that we can reach an agreement on how to proceed with the trial that will allow the opportunity for both the House and the president’s counsel if they choose to do so,” she said.

The initial resolution that set out the process for former President Clinton’s 1999 impeachment trial did not include a deal on calling specific witnesses. Instead, it laid out how Clinton’s legal team and House managers could ask for witnesses as part of the trial.

The 1999 rules specified that after an initial phase of the trial, which included opening arguments from both sides and questions from senators, it would be “in order to make a motion to subpoena witnesses and/or to present any evidence not in the record.”

War powers

A debate over Trump’s war powers could come to the floor as soon as Tuesday morning. 

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) introduced a resolution earlier this month that would require Trump to withdraw U.S. troops from any hostilities against Iran within 30 days without congressional approval. Under the War Powers Act, Democrats can force a vote on discharging it from the Foreign Relations Committee, which will require a simple majority. 

Democrats will need four Republicans to support the resolution to send it to the House. So far, two — Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) — have said they will vote for it. Several other GOP senators, including Collins and Sens. Jerry Moran (Kan.) and Todd Young (Ind.), are undecided. 

Potential Senate action comes after a U.S. airstrike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and subsequent Iranian missile attacks against Iraqi bases that house U.S. personnel brought Washington and Tehran to the brink of war. 

The House passed its own resolution last week aimed at reining in Trump’s power to launch military action in Iran without first receiving congressional approval. 

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been called to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday to discuss the administration’s decision to launch the airstrike that killed Soleimani. It is unclear whether he will appear before the panel. 

While Republicans have lauded the president for taking out Soleimani — arguing it was a necessary move to prevent imminent attacks — Democrats have expressed concern the attack was disproportional in response to Iran’s aggressions and could place American soldiers and diplomats at risk.

During a second portion of the hearing, former State Department Director of Policy Planning Richard Haass, Brookings Institute senior fellow Avril Haines and former national security adviser Stephen Hadley are slated to testify. 

Trade deal

Five committees are set to sign off on Trump’s trade deal with Canada and Mexico, paving the way for the agreement to be taken up by the full Senate. 

The Senate Finance Committee signed off on the deal last week, but the Senate parliamentarian sent the trade agreement to seven total panels, a procedural snag for Republicans who had hoped for quick signoff after the House passed the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement last month. 

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The Environment and Public Works and Budget committees are set to hold hearings on Tuesday, while the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions and Commerce, Science, and Transportation panels will meet on Wednesday and the Foreign Relations Committee will finish off the week of meetings on Thursday. 

The Senate Appropriations Committee could also take up the deal. 

Nominations

The Senate will take up Trump’s nominee to lead the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as they wait for Pelosi to transmit the impeachment articles. 

McConnell filed cloture on Peter Gaynor’s nomination to be FEMA administrator, teeing up a procedural vote for Monday evening. 

A final vote on Gaynor’s nomination is expected on Tuesday. 

Congressional Review Act resolution

The House is slated to take up a Congressional Review Act resolution introduced by Rep. Susie Lee (D-Nev.) showing disapproval of a Department of Education rule that critics argue will hinder student loan borrowers’ ability to seek loan forgiveness from predatory institutions.

“The original 2016 Borrower Defense Rule was a commonsense policy meant to level the playing field between students and the predatory colleges taking advantage of them. But Secretary [Betsy] DeVos’s new rule makes the process of applying for and granting borrower defense forgiveness unnecessarily difficult and burdensome for the students who we are supposed to be protecting,” Lee said in a statement.

“The original Borrower Defense Rule was projected to secure $17 billion in relief for defrauded students by 2020. According to the Department of Education’s own estimates, the new DeVos rule is expected to garner only a fraction of that. Our bicameral bill overturns this harmful new rule and maintains the original, pro-student Borrower Defense Rule.”

The Department of Education projects the rule will save more than $10 billion over the course of the next decade. Democrats have slammed the notion that the rule outweighs the costs on students.

“Instead of easing regulations and oversight on predatory for-profit schools, we need to stand up for students and open up quality, affordable opportunities in education for everyone,” Lee’s statement said.

The rule, which would overturn Obama-era policies, has largely seen support from Republicans and faces an uphill battle in the upper chamber.

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