Who’s on first, what’s on second, and nobody knows exactly how the Senate is being run right now.
Though Democrats technically took the reins of the chamber this week, they have been unable to reach a power-sharing deal with Republicans, leaving the Senate partially frozen.
Democrats hold the gavel in the chamber itself, but GOP lawmakers are still the chairs of committees, for now.
All sides are feeling their way through the new arrangement, but already cracks are showing in Democrats’ push for quick action on President Biden’s agenda.
Only one of Mr. Biden’s Cabinet picks has been confirmed, marking the slowest start for a president in at least 60 years.
And his demands for quick passage of a nearly $2 trillion coronavirus package were already meeting strong objections from Republicans, who said a small bill might be possible, but rejected Mr. Biden’s framework.
More immediately, the Senate is trying to figure out how to move forward with an impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, and still hasn’t worked out how to transfer power from the GOP to Democrats, with the chief sticking point being the fate of the filibuster.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wants the new power-sharing deal to lock out any Democratic attempt to do away with the Senate’s defining feature.
“The legislative filibuster is a crucial part of the Senate,” Mr. McConnell said, adding that Democrats should be willing to reaffirm the 60-vote threshold “if the talk of unity and common ground is to have meaning.”
Democrats say they don’t want to cede any options, including pulling the so-called “nuclear option” to change the rules and curtail the filibuster yet again. But Mr. McConnell says they’ll have to show some give in order to get going on their agenda.
Mr. McConnell also proposed a three-week delay in any start to a Trump impeachment trial, saying senators need to take care to respect the rights of all parties after the snap impeachment by the House.
That delay could, actually, help Mr. Biden. An impeachment trial would absorb most of the Senate’s bandwidth, crowding out the president’s efforts to get his Cabinet in place. A weeks-long delay could clear space for more approvals.
‘It will be soon’
Senators are also at the mercy of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who despite leading her troops to approve an article of impeachment on Jan. 13, has yet to transmit it to the Senate.
“Speaker Pelosi will determine when she will send the articles over,” newly minted Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer said Thursday.
Mrs. Pelosi brushed aside questions about the timing.
“I’m not going to be telling you when it is going,” she told reporters, adding later, “it will be soon, I don’t think it will be long, we must do it.”
Mr. McConnell is suggesting she have the impeachment managers present the charges Jan. 28, kicking off a two-week exchange of legal briefs, with a trial to start in mid-February.
“At this time of strong political passions, Senate Republicans believe it is absolutely imperative that we do not allow a half-baked process to short-circuit the due process that former President Trump deserves or damage the Senate or the presidency,” Mr. McConnell said.
Democrats went into this year with narrow control in the House and control of the presidency, but were pleasantly surprised by their victories in Georgia’s two Senate runoffs earlier this month. Suddenly they switched from worrying about power sharing to figuring out how to run the whole show — and they’re still searching for answers.
They officially took control of the Senate on Wednesday with the swearing in of three new senators, to create a 50-50 chamber. New Vice President Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote tilts the balance to Democrats.
That means Democrats now wield the gavel in the full chamber, and Mr. Schumer, New York Democrat, is now majority leader.
But since the Senate is a continuing body, the committees nominally remain under GOP control until a new organizing resolution passes.
Sen. Richard Durbin, the Illinois Democrat in line to become the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, told reporters on Thursday that the current leader is either himself, Sen. Lindsey Graham, who was the top Republican in the previous Congress, or Sen. Charles E. Grassley, who’s supposed to be the top Republican in this Congress.
“We know it could be one of three people,” Mr. Durbin said.
The shaky control of committees is one of several reasons Mr. Biden had only one Cabinet post confirmed on Inauguration Day — tied with President Ronald Reagan for the worst record in 60 years.
Congress did pass a waiver Thursday to clear the way for a retired general to become secretary of defense, but the Senate did not hold an actual confirmation vote.
Democrats were pondering a weekend session to make more headway.
Democrats also said Thursday they won’t give Mr. McConnell the filibuster assurances he’s seeking in the organizing resolution.
“We’re not going to give him what he wishes,” Mr. Durbin said. “If you did that, then there would just be unbridled use of [the filibuster]. I mean, nothing holding him back.”
There are other options, such as a gentleman’s agreement between the top leaders that they won’t try to eliminate the filibuster. Mr. McConnell has reason to be suspicious of that, however.
He struck a gentleman’s agreement in 2013 with then-Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, who 10 months later broke the deal and triggered the nuclear option to curtail filibusters for presidential nominees.
Mr. McConnell is also at the center of negotiations over how a Trump impeachment trial would look.
Mr. Trump’s first impeachment trial began Jan. 16, 2020, and ended Feb. 6 with acquittals.
No witnesses were heard, but the president’s team and the Democratic impeachment managers were given ample time to argue their cases.
Democrats say this trial should go quicker, and they played down the need for evidence, since the senators themselves were witnesses to the conduct. Indeed, they were the victims, making their role sitting in judgment all the more striking.
Mr. Trump’s fate is an easy call for Democrats.
“He roused the troops. He urged them on to fight like hell. He sent them on their way to the Capitol,” Mrs. Pelosi said. “He called upon lawlessness. He showed a path to the Capitol and the lawlessness took place.”
For Republicans, the calculations are far trickier.
A number of Republicans have said they don’t believe the Constitution allows for a trial of an official who’s no longer in power. Such a trial has occurred once, in 1876, for a War Department secretary who resigned rather than face trial. The Senate held a trial anyway — but acquitted him.
Republicans are also keeping a close eye on the politics of the situation, with some warning that if the GOP assists in an impeachment effort it will rend the party.
Mr. Graham said he figures 90% of the GOP wants to move on and dispense with impeachment, and 75% is “fine with the president and his policies.”
Most of us don’t want to go down the road of impeaching the president out of office. Most of us want to get the party back together,” the South Carolina Republican said. “You can be disappointed all you want in the president’s conduct, I get that. But I think impeachment under these circumstances would do more harm than good.”