President-elect Joe Biden is pushing to keep impeachment from consuming his agenda and overshadowing the early days of his administration, as he tries to avoid the appearance of either promoting the proceedings or trying to stop them.
With that in mind, CNN has learned, Biden called Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell this week to discuss the possibility of “bifurcation,” which would be conducting impeachment proceedings at the same time senators work to confirm his Cabinet nominees and consider a sweeping Covid relief package.
It’s the latest sign that with each passing day since the siege of the Capitol, people close to Biden say, he has become resigned to the fact that impeachment is simply one more crisis that he will inherit from the Trump presidency.
That realization, according to people close to the incoming President, has not stopped Biden and his aides from trying to keep the focus on his top priorities.
Biden is both making and fielding calls from members of Congress, advisers said, with House Democrats and their advisers primarily interested in discussing impeaching Trump for a second time.
That focus represents a divide between the incoming Biden administration and Democrats on Capitol Hill, many of whom lived through the siege of the Capitol and believe it is a moral imperative that Trump be punished for inciting the insurrection. Biden, the advisers said, understands the trauma experienced on Capitol Hill and the desire for action, but believes the issue is not as important to a majority of Americans as is his coronavirus response, a plan he is slated to roll out on Thursday.
The call from Biden to McConnell on Monday, which was first reported by The New York Times, underscores the lengths to which Biden is immersing himself in his longtime haunt: Capitol Hill. The two men spoke frankly about a potential impeachment trial for Trump, people familiar with the call said, as both of them noted it would be far different from the trial they sat through in 1999 for President Bill Clinton.
McConnell told Biden that the Senate parliamentarian would have to rule whether the Senate could work on legislative business other than impeachment, people familiar with the call said, adding that McConnell did not offer his own view.
After next Wednesday, of course, McConnell becomes the Senate minority leader. But for the next eight days, McConnell is running the Senate schedule, which is why Biden reached out to him.
It is one of several scenarios Biden and his advisers are working through as they balance the competing priorities of responding to a bipartisan call to sanction Trump and trying to advance his agenda.
“He’s not going to use his political capital to stand in the way, but he’s not going to use the bully pulpit to advocate for it publicly,” a Biden adviser said of impeachment. “He’s focused on what his pro-active agenda is.”
Biden and his team were initially cold on starting his administration – which Biden pledged would “turn the page” on Trump – with a focus on the Republican President. But as more alarming details are learned about the attack, early discussions among Biden advisers of taking an active role in slowing or trying to somehow manage impeachment have been abandoned, aides say, as they’ve become well aware that trying to do so could divide Democrats even deeper.
“That would destroy any hope of party unity,” a Biden ally tells CNN. “It could derail Biden’s presidency.”
Biden’s focus on coronavirus, however, reflects a political reality for the President-elect, one that the official said was fully understood by his senior staff: His first year in office will be defined by his ability to combat the virus. The incoming Biden administration has pledged to administer 100 million coronavirus vaccines within his first 100 days and is fully aware that will be a “big point of judgment on whether we are successful or not.”
“So, when he has these calls with members,” another adviser said, “that is what he wants to talk about – the Covid plan.”
A Biden balancing act
The turn to impeachment has all but dominated Democratic focus in the wake of the January 6 insurrection by pro-Trump rioters, with many top lawmakers publicly suggesting ways they could balance a focus on pressing issues like the coronavirus and reprimanding Trump.
Some Democrats, like South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn and Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, have suggested or expressed an openness to the House slow-rolling the process.
“Let’s give President-elect Biden the 100 days he needs to get his agenda off and running, and maybe we’ll send the articles sometime after that,” Clyburn said.
Others, including Biden, have suggested having the Senate divide its time, spending half of its day conducting an impeachment trial and the other confirming his nominees – a complicated dance that exemplifies the differences between Biden and Capitol Hill Democrats.
But the urgency among Democrats and a handful of Republicans on Capitol Hill could make the gambit difficult to pull off.
Democratic members who directly experienced the savage storming of the United States Capitol on January 6 largely view impeachment as their main avenue of recourse against not only Trump, but the increasingly violent movement around him.
New Jersey Rep. Andy Kim described returning home on Friday, less than two days after what he described as a “siege” of the Capitol, and being asked by his young son if he was OK, whether his office had been “destroyed” and if “the bad people” who did it had been caught or punished.
“It took the questions and the logic of a 5-year-old to just show me that these actions need to have consequences,” said Kim, a close ally to the Biden team. “Consequences I can show my kid and future generations, as well, that this is not what this country is about.”
Kim added that he wants the Biden to hit the ground running and doesn’t believe impeachment and moving on the President-elect’s agenda are “incompatible.”
“I certainly want President-elect Biden to get off to a strong start and I don’t see how this would necessarily hamper that,” Kim said, “but we are also a separate and co-equal branch of government that just experienced an attack from one branch of government against us, the executive branch against the legislature. That is severe. I don’t want us to minimize what happened.”
Even still, there is growing worries inside Biden’s orbit that any focus on impeachment could distract from the “mission critical” action needed on coronavirus.
A senior aide to a House Democrat who supports moving forward with impeachment said of the Biden team that it has “been clear that (the Covid response) is their focus,” but added that the President-elect has not sought to knock the process off course.
“If they wanted to put an end to this, they could,’ the House aide said. “Biden is smart enough to know, whatever his instincts are, that Nancy Pelosi knows how to run her caucus better than anyone,” the House aide said. “He could have very easily said, ‘I don’t think it’s a good idea.’”
A focus on what they can control
The Biden team is also intensifying its focus on things its can control.
On the first day of his presidency, Biden still intends to sign a series of executive actions designed to overturn some of the Trump administration’s work on climate change and immigration and other actions.
But the energy behind delivering a clear rebuke to Trump – and sending a message to those who might follow him – remains front of mind for many in the President-elect’s party.
“If we do not do this, if we do not (take) any concrete steps to signify that this was wrong and to hold the President accountable, that will do something,” said Kim, a veteran national security professional. “That will erode our democracy, that will make it easier for someone in the future to do something like this.”
The Biden transition team also accelerated its behind-the-scenes pressure on Tuesday to assure that nominees for top national security positions in his new administration receive a confirmation hearing before the inauguration.
While some nominees have their hearings already set for next week, a hearing has yet to be scheduled for Homeland Security Secretary nominee Alejandro Mayorkas. Republicans control the Senate until next Wednesday, so it is up to GOP chairmen to schedule confirmation hearings before inauguration.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, who will become majority leader after Biden takes office, reminded senators in a letter Tuesday of the fresh urgency surrounding confirmations.
“The violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6th showed us we need qualified Senate-confirmed people (not in an acting capacity) in key national security positions on Day One, including Secretary of Defense, Secretary of Homeland Security, Secretary of State, Attorney General, and others,” Schumer wrote. “The economic challenges our nation faces also require having key economic nominees confirmed and on the job ASAP.”
Biden has raised the notion of bifurcation, which could allow the Senate to conduct an impeachment trial for half of a day, with the remaining hours devoted to his Covid relief package and voting on confirmations. But it remains unclear whether the Senate parliamentarian would approve such a plan, considering the rules of impeachment.
Aides say a range of options are still being discussed about how to proceed, but those options do not include trying to stop impeachment. The precise Senate timeline will likely not become clear until after the House vote.