Good morning. In a stunning violation of norms, the Senate is in session on a Friday.
Democrats officially took unified control of the White House and Congress this week, with President Joe Biden’s inauguration and the swearing in of two new Democratic senators, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock of Georgia, on Wednesday.
New Sen. Alex Padilla also took office, filling Vice President Kamala Harris’ former Senate seat representing California.
The Senate has begun considering Biden’s Cabinet secretaries, holding confirmation hearings for several key positions this week. On Wednesday, the chamber overwhelmingly approved Avril Haines to serve as director of national intelligence. Senators will vote this morning on whether to confirm retired Gen. Lloyd Austin as secretary of defense.
Austin is an unusual case: He retired only recently, in 2016. In an attempt to ensure civilian leadership is properly distanced from the military, the law mandates that secretaries of defense must have been out of active service for the prior seven years. Congress has waived this requirement only twice in the past. Former Secretary of State and Army Gen. George Marshall was the first in 1950. In 2017, Congress passed a waiver to allow James Mattis to serve as Trump’s defense secretary.
Lawmakers from both parties raised concerns about setting a precedent by approving another waiver so soon. Those skeptics argued another waiver could make appointments of freshly retired military service members to the position more common, undermining the principle of civilian control of the armed forces.
Still, there was broad bipartisan support for advancing Austin’s waiver. The House passed it Thursday night with a vote of 326-78. The Senate went on to approve the waiver 69-27.
With his expected confirmation today, Austin will make history as the nation’s first black defense secretary.
Impeachment Trial Timeline Takes Shape
Update, 11:13 a.m.: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced Friday that House Democrats plan to send the article of impeachment against former President Donald Trump to the Senate on Monday.
Constitutionally, that means trial proceedings should kick off Tuesday afternoon at 1 p.m. But all 100 senators could agree to delay the start of the trial to provide some extra buffer time for both sides to prepare their arguments. It’s possible the trial won’t start in earnest next week, but at some point a little further down the road. Schumer is still discussing the details with McConnell.
“I’ve been speaking to the Republican leader about the timing and duration of the trial, but make no mistake: the trial will be held in the United States Senate, and there will be a vote on whether to convict the president,” Schumer said.
McConnell proposed a timeline Thursday night in which the trial would begin in mid-February rather than immediately, in order to give Trump and his team time to muster a defense. The House impeached Trump for incitement of insurrection last week, on January 13.
“Senate Republicans are strongly united behind the principle that the institution of the Senate, the office of the presidency, and former President Trump himself all deserve a full and fair process that respects his rights and the serious factual, legal, and constitutional questions at stake,” McConnell said. “Given the unprecedented speed of the House’s process, our proposed timeline for the initial phases includes a modest and reasonable amount of additional time for both sides to assemble their arguments before the Senate would begin to hear them.”
Cheney Faces Backlash
When Rep. Liz Cheney voted to impeach President Donald Trump last week, some suggested her decision was aimed at political gain.
But that idea presupposes the existence of a future, Trump-free Republican Party in which Cheney’s impeachment vote will enhance her standing among primary voters and her colleagues, which is … questionable. Cheney’s move, at least for now, is anything but beneficial to her position in the GOP.
She has faced backlash at home in Wyoming, where a GOP state senator (who argues Congress needs more members like conspiracy theorist freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, if that tells you anything about where he’s coming from) has announced he will primary Cheney. Meanwhile, a group of staunchly Trump-allied Republicans is working to build support to oust her from her position as House GOP Conference chair.
Cheney is the third-ranking Republican in the House and the only woman in GOP leadership. Those distinctions made her the most notable of the 10 Republicans who split with the rest of their colleagues in voting for impeachment.
During his presidency, Cheney largely stood behind Trump. She didn’t jump at opportunities to criticize him, although she was willing to publicly split with the former administration on national security and foreign policy matters. After the attack on the Capitol, though, Cheney was remarkably clear in condemning Trump. She went beyond the public remarks of other Republicans who voted to impeach him, writing that there “has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.”
“The President of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack. Everything that followed was his doing,” she said.
Some Republicans have bemoaned the fact that Cheney released her searing statement the night before the vote, allowing Democrats to cite her remarks for hours on end during floor debate on impeachment the next day.
“Her decision to impeach the president does not represent the majority of our conference,” said freshman Rep. Bob Good of Virginia. “It has only served to become a Democrat talking point to be used against our party during this impeachment debate.”
House Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. Andy Biggs and freshman Rep. Matt Rosendale are spearheading the campaign to punish Cheney for her stance. Rosendale has argued Cheney’s vote for impeachment “ignores the will of our voters,” and he has complained that she did not discuss her decision with all Republican members beforehand.
The leaders of the push claim they have secured commitments from at least half of the conference to vote for the resolution calling for Cheney to step aside. They haven’t made their whip list public, though, and any such vote would be conducted by secret ballot, which would likely benefit Cheney’s cause more than it hurts her.
According to House Republican Conference rules, signatures from 20 percent of the conference, 43 members, are needed on a petition to trigger a special meeting in which members would debate the resolution that calls for her to step down. While the petition has not been introduced yet, it’s evident at this point that the group pushing for Cheney’s removal will be able to meet that threshold. Still, it’s not clear they will have backing from the required two-thirds of members for the resolution to get a full vote during the meeting. If it does not have enough support for an immediate vote, the resolution could be referred to an internal House GOP panel, like the leadership-heavy Steering Committee, instead. If that occurs, the resolution is likely to be rejected before it receives a full vote.
Cheney and her allies have projected confidence, saying it’s unlikely enough Republicans will support the attempt to oust her.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she responded when members began calling for her removal. “This is a vote of conscience. It’s one where there are different views in our conference.”
Even if the attempt fails at this point and Cheney remains in her post through the remainder of the 117th Congress, though, she may struggle to win another House Republican leadership election in the future.
House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy has defended Cheney despite their very different approaches to Republican efforts to reject the election results and Trump’s impeachment. He said Thursday that the conference will gather next week to discuss the matter and answer questions members may have.
“We allow differences of opinion inside our conference,” McCarthy told reporters. “They’re welcomed. But I think there’s questions that need to be answered—the style in which things were delivered.”
He said he wants Cheney to stay on as conference chair and expects that at “the end of the day, we will unify.”
A number of other influential members have also sided with Cheney in recent days.
Rep. Rodney Davis, the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, said he views the petition as “unfortunate.”
The effort, he added, “really speaks, in my opinion, less about Liz Cheney’s effectiveness and more about the ambition of others in the conference who want to move up in leadership.”
Presented Without Comment
Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, will host a debate about the future of the filibuster—which ensures a 60-vote threshold for passage of most legislation in the Senate—today at 2 p.m. Molly is an expert who understands this topic (and many other niche congressional subjects) better than most. As pressure builds among Democrats to get rid of the legislative filibuster, this conversation promises to be informative and interesting.