By James Downie
Democrats’ Saturday flip-flop on calling witnesses in former president Donald Trump’s impeachment trial occasioned plenty of criticism. But while the merits of hearing witnesses were debatable, one reason the senators apparently were eager to hastily conclude the trial deserves plenty of flak: Less than a full month into Joe Biden’s presidency, Congress is already entering a week in recess - risking Democrats’ agenda and Americans’ livelihoods.
By itself, the case for hearing more witnesses was weak. The House impeachment managers wanted to call Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., but there’s no evidence to suggest her testimony would have differed from her statement that Democrats entered into the record. Beyond that, Democrats hadn’t done any preparation to call further witnesses, and it doesn’t take a law degree to know that in a trial, you don’t ask questions you don’t know the answers to.
Regardless, the sad fact is that more than enough Senate Republicans were always going to vote to acquit Trump anyway. As one of the House impeachment managers, Stacey Plaskett, a nonvoting delegate from the U.S. Virgin Islands, told CNN on Sunday, “We didn’t need more witnesses. We needed more senators with spines.”
Yet there are much better uses for the fourth full week of the Biden presidency than sending Congress out of town. At the very least, if the Senate is going to be in recess otherwise, you might as well depose witnesses to pile even more facts up against Trump. But more important, there are plenty of major votes waiting to happen. Democrats are still working on a coronavirus relief and stimulus bill. We’re still waiting on two key democracy reform bills: the For the People Act and a restored Voting Rights Act. Fewer than half of Biden’s Cabinet secretaries have been confirmed, not including his nominee for attorney general, Merrick Garland.
Some will argue that you don’t need the full Congress to make progress on these fronts. On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., pointed out that the Senate “passed the beginning part of the covid relief package, the budget reconciliation instructions, two weeks ago. We’re now in the process of writing that bill, as we will all next week. We also were able to move . . . nominees forward.”
But the whole process could be faster if, from the beginning, Democrats had decided that there would be no recesses, that Congress would focus entirely on passing their top priorities as quickly as possible. We wouldn’t be seeing, for example, Democrats writing this crucial stimulus bill only now, rather than a few weeks ago.
To be fair to Murphy, the timeline is not his call. Ultimately, blame lies with Democratic congressional leaders - and with the president, who could keep Democrats working if he wanted to.
“It’s no coincidence,” wrote Politico’s Rachael Bade, that the senator who advised the impeachment managers to backtrack on witnesses “was Biden’s closest Hill ally, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who argued that senators wanted to go home for Valentine’s Day.”
As vice president under President Barack Obama, Biden should know better than most the costs of dallying in a president’s early tenure.
First, there’s lost momentum: The further Obama’s inauguration receded, the easier Republican obstruction of his agenda became. The Affordable Care Act in particular suffered because it was slow-walked in a futile effort to attract GOP votes.
Second, you never know what will happen: In 2010, Republicans’ stunning victory in the Massachusetts special Senate election meant Democrats suddenly lost filibuster-proof control of the Senate. (One result: They had to pass an unfinished version of the Affordable Care Act, which left the law more vulnerable to subsequent legal challenges.) In 2001, the last time the Senate was split 50-50, that lasted only five months before Republican Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont shocked Washington by leaving his party and caucusing with the Democrats.
The best way for Democrats to avoid gradual inertia and sudden surprises is to act as quickly as possible and not stop until every priority is out the door. Don’t leave until you have pandemic relief and stimulus, democracy reform, a confirmed Cabinet and more. It’s understandable for Democrats to believe that they have time both to go home and to legislate - and if this were, say, just before next fall’s elections, that might be true. But the first weeks of a new presidency are precious. And the sooner Democrats can bring relief to millions of struggling Americans, the better.