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On with the Trial

Plus: Democrats hammer out the details of their new stimulus bill.

Good morning. They tell me I’m not the best at these newsletter introductions. My husband suggested I start this off with a haiku, but that doesn’t seem very sustainable. Folks on Twitter had a few suggestions, including this one. So, for now, a photo of my dog Skippy:

Trial Begins in Earnest

Former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial begins in earnest today, and as with his first, the outcome isn’t really in doubt. 

Most Republicans are expected to vote against convicting Trump after hearing the House managers’ case against him. Only five Republicans—Sens. Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Pat Toomey—voted to proceed to the trial alongside Democrats last month in the face of a GOP effort to dismiss it. Seventeen Republicans would have to join Democrats for conviction to be successful. That isn’t looking likely.

“It’s not a question of how the trial ends, it’s a question of when it ends,” South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said on CBS over the weekend. “Republicans are going to view this as an unconstitutional exercise, and the only question is, will they call witnesses, how long does the trial take?”

The impeachment managers and Trump’s counsel are expected to spend up to four hours, equally divided between the two sides, presenting arguments today about the constitutionality of the trial. After that, the full chamber will vote on whether the Senate has jurisdiction to try the former president, according to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. A simple majority is needed to proceed. 

This vote could break down along exactly the same lines as the procedural vote mentioned above, but there could conceivably be a couple Republicans who vote differently this time. Some, such as Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, said they voted in favor of the motion to dismiss the trial only in order to have a debate about its constitutionality. Legal scholars across the political spectrum have largely agreed that trying a former president is constitutional. (So has Rep. Matt Gaetz.)

After that—with the expectation that the Senate will vote to affirm the trial as constitutional—the agreement between Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for the schedule provides the managers and the defense with up to 16 hours each, spread out over two days per side, to present their cases. Those arguments will begin at noon on Wednesday.

Senators will then have time to question the prosecution and the defense, followed by a period of debate over whether to consider motions to subpoena witnesses and documents. For now, it doesn’t seem likely that witnesses will be called, although that isn’t certain. Democratic leaders want to move through this trial swiftly to get back to President Joe Biden’s agenda. 

If the Senate votes against allowing witnesses, the trial could be extraordinarily short. The impeachment managers and Trump’s defense would present closing arguments, followed by a final vote on the article of impeachment.

Schumer said Monday that the schedule will “ensure a fair and honest” trial.

“This impeachment trial in the United States Senate will allow for truth and accountability, which are essential to ensuring desperately-needed unity and healing in our country following the despicable attack on our democracy on January 6 that left five people dead,” he said.

Lawyers for Trump pushed back Monday on the charge of incitement of insurrection against the former president, arguing in a brief that Trump’s speech before the attack on the Capitol “was never directed to inciting or producing any imminent lawless action.”

The attorneys added that Trump “did not direct anyone to commit lawless actions” and made the case that the rioters acted of their own accord.

In their response, the managers rejected Trump’s defense. Democrats previously argued in a brief that Trump whipped the crowd “into a frenzy” and then aimed them at the Capitol building “like a loaded cannon.” 

“It is impossible to imagine the events of January 6 occurring without President Trump creating a powder keg, striking a match, and then seeking personal advantage from the ensuing havoc,” the managers wrote.

Democrats Push Forward With Relief Bill

The U.S. economy added 49,000 jobs in January, the Labor Department reported on Friday, blunting hopes of a swift economic recovery as roughly 10 million unemployed Americans are still struggling to make ends meet. Democratic lawmakers interpreted the news as fresh justification for their $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan, which they hope to pass before key unemployment benefits from the last coronavirus relief package expire on March 14.

“While we are grateful for everyone who found work and is earning a paycheck, it’s very clear our economy is still in trouble,” Biden said on Friday. 

The unemployment rate stands at 6.3 percent, down from 6.7 percent in December. But some of last month’s numbers are a result of declining workplace participation—fewer people are working or are unemployed yet actively looking for jobs. The private sector in particular added only 6,000 jobs in January, according to the report. 

It’s also clear that the economic fallout of the pandemic is likely to last for quite some time. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has projected that the U.S. economy will return to its pre-pandemic size by the middle of the year—regardless of whether Congress passes more aid—but the CBO also expects the number of Americans employed will not return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024.

Democrats are aiming to take quick action on their relief plan, even as the Senate is set to dive into former president Donald Trump’s impeachment trial this week.

We wrote about the group of Republican senators who were seeking a $618 billion bipartisan aid agreement with the Biden administration in Uphill last week. At this point, a bipartisan outcome appears unlikely. Republicans and Democrats have very different ideas about what kind of a bill is needed.

Democrats are working to advance their legislation without GOP votes. Last week they kickstarted a process called budget reconciliation, which allows the party that controls the Senate to pass legislation with a simple majority rather than the typical 60-vote threshold. Just as Republicans used reconciliation to pass their 2017 tax bill without Democratic support, Democrats now plan to use the vehicle to advance Biden’s stimulus proposal. 

In a process that began Thursday and dragged into the early hours of the morning Friday, the Senate passed a flurry of amendments to Democrats’ budget resolution in what’s called a “vote-a-rama”—a necessary step in the reconciliation process during which the chamber considers dozens of amendments on a variety of topics. The marathon concluded with the Senate passing the resolution and Vice President Kamala Harris casting her first tie-breaking vote. House Democrats approved the budget resolution later that day.

Democratic leaders now hope to make significant progress in drafting the actual legislation over the next week, as a slew of committees are set to mark up different components of the legislation. Among other provisions, the package is expected to include funding for vaccine distribution, COVID-19 testing, schools, and state and local governments. It will also boost federal unemployment benefits and extend them for several more months. The details of the bill are still not final, though, as Democrats in Congress work to include their priorities and to pinpoint what can and can’t pass. 

Biden’s proposal initially sought to boost the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025, but West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin said last week that he does not support that proposal. With a 50-50 chamber and the vice president needed to break a tie, Democrats have no margin for disagreement in the Senate on a bill Republicans won’t support. Any one Democratic senator, like Manchin, has the power to derail a given item in the legislation. 

The CBO projected on Monday that the minimum wage increase could result in the loss of 1.4 million jobs. The CBO also said it could lift 900,000 people out of poverty and raise wages for millions—but with political support among Senate Democrats not strong enough to begin with, the potential downsides are likely to put the nail in the coffin for the idea for now. 

President Biden has also publicly cast doubt on whether the provision will be able to make it past the Senate parliamentarian. Bills approved through budget reconciliation face a stricter set of rules about what kinds of policies they can address. 

“My guess is it will not be in it,” Biden said of the minimum wage hike in an interview with CBS. “I don’t think it is going to survive.”

As lawmakers continue to tease out the details of the bill, they would do well to note that the recession’s effects are not being borne equally across American industries. Payroll employment in some sectors—like finance and information—hardly fluctuated at all in January, compared with food services, which saw a net decline of 19,000 jobs last month. Employment in the leisure and hospitality sectors also trended downward, notching a 61,000 reduction in payroll numbers last month alone. The retail industry also underwent a post-holiday season slump, losing 38,000 jobs in January after adding a whopping 135,000 in December. 

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget has noted this disparity and is calling for targeted aid in place of Biden’s sweeping relief bill.

“More funding is warranted to assist those out of work because of the pandemic, prevent state and local government layoffs, boost economic demand, prevent a decline in household incomes, and end this pandemic once and for all,” committee president Maya MacGuineas said in a statement last week. “But it shouldn’t take $1.9 trillion to fill a $400 billion or $800 billion hole.”

Some moderate Democrats have eyed the possibility of narrowing the number of people who will receive checks of $1,400 in the new aid package. The Washington Post reported that Democrats have considered lowering the income threshold for the checks from prior levels of $75,000 per individual to $50,000 per individual, and lowering the threshold for married couples from $150,000 to $100,000. 

“There’s a discussion right now about what that threshold will look like,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said of the stimulus checks on Monday. “It’s still being negotiated at this point.”

The idea of lowering income thresholds for the checks has faced resistance already from progressives in both chambers, including influential senators. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden have both poured cold water on the prospect.

Newly elected Georgia Sen. Jon Ossoff, whose campaign focused on delivering the checks, reportedly also does not support a change in the income thresholds. 

The House Ways and Means Committee rejected the notion of significantly lowered income thresholds for the checks, releasing legislation Monday night that would set the thresholds at $75,000 for singles and $150,000 for couples. The bill contains a faster phase out for higher-income Americans, however, which would cut down on how many people receive checks and could address concerns from moderates.

Policy debates aside, here’s a public service announcement: It’s probably worth filing your tax return early if your income took a hit during the pandemic or if your family grew over the past year. The Internal Revenue Service has used 2019 income levels for the previous direct payments, but they are expected to use 2020 information if it is on file by the time they send out new payments. The IRS will begin accepting returns on February 12.

Rep. Ron Wright Passed Away on Sunday

Texas Republican Rep. Ron Wright died over the weekend at the age of 67. Wright, who had lung cancer, had been hospitalized for the two weeks leading up to his death after contracting COVID. He represented Texas’s 6th Congressional District beginning in 2019 and won reelection to his second term in November. 

“His wife Susan was by his side and he is now in the presence of their Lord and Savior,” his office said in a statement.

“As friends, family, and many of his constituents will know, Ron maintained his quick wit and optimism until the very end,” the statement added. “Despite years of painful, sometimes debilitating treatment for cancer, Ron never lacked the desire to get up and go to work, to motivate those around him, or to offer fatherly advice.”

Wright is the first sitting member of Congress to die after contracting coronavirus. Representative-elect Luke Letlow of Louisiana died of coronavirus complications days before he would have been sworn in for his first House term.

Our thoughts are with Congressman Wright’s family and staff during this painful time.

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Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.