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Analysis: Pelosi's delay tests public opinion on impeachment


WASHINGTON, DC – Democrats know they don't have the votes to convict President Donald Trump when the Senate convenes as the Court of Impeachment. But they are pursuing the case in the court of public opinion.

It became a defining moment — one that stunned Washington — after the House impeached Trump when Speaker Nancy Pelosi declined to immediately transmit the charges to the Senate.

The abrupt move vexed the Republican president and his party, annoying some, angering others, and caused a political firestorm as the days turned to weeks. It was approaching a month.

It was also a strategy. On Friday, it neared an end with Pelosi announcing the House would take steps next week to send the articles of impeachment to the Senate for the president's trial.

While the delay produced an avalanche of theories and strategies about the sudden impasse, it hasn't much changed the widely expected final verdict: Trump's acquittal of charges he abused power and obstructed Congress in pressuring Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden.

Yet in the lull, something else happened. New evidence and documents emerged, including emails showing more of the administration's internal deliberations over Trump's actions. Former White House national security adviser John Bolton announced he would be willing to appear, if a subpoena was sent.

Attention shifted from the airy Constitutional arguments for and against impeachment to the earthy details of how to conduct the rare Senate trial, only the third in the nation's history.

There's nowhere near the 67 votes needed for conviction in the Senate, where Republicans with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hold a slim 53-47 majority.

But a handful of Republican senators who will decide how things go are suddenly infused with new power, and clouded with political risk. Just 51 votes will set the rules. As McConnell works to hold them in line, Democrats will try to sway four GOP senators, particularly those up for re-election this year, to join in calling for a more witnesses and documents that McConnell is reluctant to allow.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins said Friday she is discussing with her colleagues a possible process for hearing new testimony. Alaska GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski has expressed discomfort with the leader's close coordination with the White House. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney said he'd like Bolton to appear.

Rather than the swift Senate trial that was expected to have started by now, Trump's impeachment has become a serial disruption to the presidency that is grinding into 2020.

“Many things have been accomplished,” Pelosi said this week.

The stated goal of Democrats was a public airing of the trial rules before Pelosi names House managers to present the case to the Senate. How much time will they be given? For how many days? Will there be more witnesses and testimony allowed?

Those are all answers Pelosi's delay did not fully resolve. McConnell will only provide when he is ready.

The ever tight-lipped Republican leader sees no reason to deviate much from the last time the Senate convened as an impeachment court for the historic undertaking, for Bill Clinton's trial in 1999. His plan is to start the trial and have the senators decide later if they want to hear more testimony.

“There will be no unfair new rulebook written solely for President Trump,” McConnell said this week. “I’ve said for months that this is our preferred route.”

As the Pelosi-McConnell standoff winds down — itself a piece of history as the two legendary leaders refuse to budge over perhaps the most consequential role of Congress — the questions remain.

It hasn't been a risk-free strategy for Democrats. The White House mocked Democrats with a video this week showing all the lawmakers who said impeachment was ‘’urgent," only to have stalled the proceedings. Lawmakers in both the House and Senate have publicly aired their exasperation with the delay, one embarrassingly backtracking the comments.

Republicans say the public is on their side as McConnell invoked Founding Father Alexander Hamilton to warn against “a procrastinated resolution of impeachments.” Thousands flocked to the first Trump rally of the year late Thursday in Toledo cheering him on with shouts of “USA!” They chuckled along as the president derided Pelosi.

In fact, polling throughout the impeachment proceedings has consistently shown the public closely divided over whether Trump should be impeached and removed from office.

A Monmouth University poll conducted in early December found that about 6 in 10 Americans said Democrats in Congress are more interested in bringing down Trump than pursuing the facts, and about 6 in 10 said Republicans in Congress are more interested in defending Trump than pursuing the facts.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said McConnell is a “clever fellow” and understandably frustrated that his plan for swift acquittal has been stalled. But Pelosi has done “just the right thing.''

As the minority party in the Senate, Schumer has little to lose and more to gain with the strategy. Whatever the Senate does is highly unlikely to result in Trump being removed from office. This way, Schumer can help keep impeachment in the public eye as Trump and senators seek election. Pelosi's delay of the impeachment trial offered a chance for Senate Democrats to win even by losing.

“If the speaker had sent the articles of impeachment over to the Senate immediately after they passed, Senate Republicans could have moved to dismiss,” he said Thursday. “There wouldn’t have been a fair or even a cursory trial.”

After all Pelosi has done to bring House — and the nation — to this point, she was not about to let impeachment go so easily. She put the House majority and her own speakership, her place in history, on the line.

In an interview the day after the House voted last month, Pelosi told The Associated Press that Trump would be “impeached forever.”

Now the Senate is poised to acquit him.

And later, the public opinion of voters will decide the outcome.

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EDITOR’S NOTE — AP Congressional Correspondent Lisa Mascaro has covered Congress since 2010.