(Bloomberg) -- House Democrats who've argued for months that President Donald Trump's impeachment was a matter of urgent national interest are now being forced to defend House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's delay in handing the case over to the Senate.
Pelosi's top lieutenants, some of whom said they got no heads-up that the speaker was holding back the next step in the impeachment process, brushed aside that there was an intractable stand-off with Senate Republicans. They said the issues would be resolved by Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell by early January when both chambers return to Washington from the holiday break.
"I think they'll be sent over," House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel of New York, said Thursday. "There are points we want to make. I think it's a good thing to hold it a while. But I don't think we want to hold it for too long."
The confusion and political maneuvering, which began just after the House had approved two articles of impeachment against the president, threaten to undercut the carefully crafted message by Pelosi and her caucus that the impeachment inquiry transcended the usual partisan conflicts that have paralyzed the Capitol.
The Constitution doesn't specify how quickly the articles must be sent to the Senate, according to a Bloomberg Opinion column by Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University. "An indefinite delay would pose a serious problem," he wrote.
"The House must actually send the articles and send managers to the Senate to prosecute the impeachment," he said in the column. "And the Senate must actually hold a trial."
The postponement, even if temporary, also risks diluting the impeachment arguments as the country draws ever nearer to the 2020 election season, even as Democrats said they're just fighting for fair rules for a Senate trial.
McConnell, Trump and their Republican allies taunted Pelosi over the delay and argued it showed that the Democrats had presented a weak case.
"I'm not sure what leverage there is in refraining from sending us something we do not want," McConnell said on the Senate floor. If Democrats never send over the articles of impeachment, he said, that's "fine with me."
Trump tweeted that "Pelosi feels her phony impeachment HOAX is so pathetic she is afraid to present it to the Senate." Lawyers close to the president, at the same time, were exploring whether Pelosi's decision to withhold the articles of impeachment could be used to argue that Trump hadn't been impeached at all.
Both sides are seeking leverage to set the terms of the Senate trial of the president on articles of impeachment charging him with abuse of power in his dealings with Ukraine, and obstruction of Congress. It's only the third time that an American president had been impeached, leaving a thin layer of precedent to proceed.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, who met with both Pelosi and McConnell Thursday, has been pressing the Kentucky Republican to agree to let Democrats call as witnesses four Trump administration officials whom the president blocked from participating in the House impeachment inquiry.
Although Trump has expressed a preference for a lengthy trial with multiple witnesses presented for his defense, McConnell and other GOP senators have been trying to convince him to accept a short proceeding, limited to arguments by House impeachment managers and the president's counsel. Trump's acquittal in the Republican-majority Senate is all but assured.
Pelosi hasn't set out any specific conditions for naming the House impeachment managers and sending the articles to the Senate.
Who and How
"When we see what they have, we'll know who and how many we will send over," Pelosi said at a news conference Thursday. She cast the timing as a procedural matter and cited the Senate's ability to come up with a bipartisan trial plan after President Bill Clinton was impeached.
McConnell said he'd be happy to adopt the same rules used in Clinton's trial and scoffed at the idea that Pelosi could pressure the Senate.
Democrats have for weeks been declaring repeatedly that Trump's actions in office represent an imminent peril to the nation.
The day before the impeachment votes, House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern of Massachusetts said at a hearing that, "Congress has no other choice but to act with urgency." He added, "This is about President Trump using his office to try and rig the next election."
On Thursday, he and Engel were defending Pelosi's strategy.
"We knew we were going in to this thing with our eyes wide open," Engel said. "The Senate is Republican controlled. And the Senate was never going to convict him. Knowing that, the caucus felt strongly that articles of impeachment should move forward."
But now, Engel added, "The Senate with Mitch McConnell and others saying 'I am not going to be an impartial arbiter,' that goes against the Constitution, and that's what bothers me."
Had the impeachment articles been transmitted Wednesday night to the Senate after the House voted, the trial would have formally begun Thursday at 1 p.m.
Some rank-and-file lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said they were left to wonder if the delay was actually was more about avoiding starting the trial before the holiday break, something from which both sides could see advantages.
In fact, the House had always planned to wait until after a Senate vote scheduled for Thursday on spending bills before notifying the chamber of impeachment, a step that would force the senators to drop all other business and take up an impeachment trial.
That decision was tantamount to kicking the trial into January,
The delay allowed the Senate to adjourn Thursday before having start the trial. And the Senate, like the House, is not be in session on Friday, or next week, or for the rest of December.
House Intelligence Committee Republican Michael Conaway of Texas found an incongruity to it all. He pointed out that Democrats have said, "The president is a security risk to our nation and every day he's in office is a bad thing."
"So, now they are going to kick back and give him a few more days?"
(Updates with Feldman quote, starting in fifth paragrah.)
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