WASHINGTON (AFP) — US President-elect Joe Biden is expected to unveil plans Thursday for fighting COVID-19 and restoring the economy, but already his ambitious first 100 days agenda is overshadowed by the looming Senate trial of his soon-to-be predecessor Donald Trump.
On the day after Trump was impeached in the House of Representatives — becoming the first US president in history subjected to a second impeachment — Biden hopes to seize the narrative in a primetime address and get Americans looking forward again.
What he is less keen to talk about, however, is the impending trial of Trump, something that will introduce a potentially nightmarish mix of scheduling complications and political drama into an already tense Senate.
In his televised speech, Biden is expected to address a twin crisis exceeding even the challenge that faced him as vice president to Barack Obama when they assumed office in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to hit new peaks, the vaccination program is stumbling, and there are fears that the economic recovery from the cratering of 2020 could backslide.
Biden, who will be sworn in on January 20, says his plan is to tackle all of this at the same time, putting one of the darkest periods in American history into the rearview mirror.
One prong will be a massive COVID relief package — the third since the pandemic began a year ago.
This would include more direct stimulus payments and could also feature new taxes on the wealthy and an increase in the minimum wage.
Biden is also promising to get vaccinations off the ground, with an eye-catching slogan of 100 million shots to be administered in the first 100 days.
It’s a tall order.
Yet Biden takes office with one advantage he wasn’t expecting even a few weeks ago: full, if narrow control of Congress.
Shock victories by Democrats in Georgia’s two Senate run-off races mean Democrats have slim majorities in both chambers.
This will also help Biden in getting confirmations of his cabinet picks. Among those beginning the process is Janet Yellen, whose nomination for Treasury secretary will be examined by the Senate Finance Committee on January 19.
Elephant in the room
The elephant in the room, however, is impeachment.
Trump was charged in the House of Representatives Wednesday for inciting insurrection by egging on a huge crowd of supporters to march against Congress on January 6. The mob rampaged through the Capitol building, leaving five people dead.
In the Democrats’ dream scenario, the Senate would have convened in emergency session to conduct a lightening trial before January 20, forcing Trump to step down.
But the Republican leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, scratched that idea, saying there wasn’t time and the rush would be unfair to the president.
As of January 20, McConnell will lose his leadership, ceding to Democrat Chuck Schumer, who is vowing to press ahead.
McConnell’s statement that he is open-minded on Trump’s guilt raises the possibility that Trump could still end up being convicted by a two-thirds majority in the Senate.
If convicted, a second, simple majority vote would be enough to bar the real estate tycoon from trying to come back as president in 2024.
But before any of that, senators will have to thread the tightest of all needles in figuring out how to simultaneously try a Republican former president while cooperating on an agenda sent by a new Democratic president.
Biden is trying to persuade the chamber to “bifurcate” and deal with the two contrasting tracks in an organized, efficient way, going “a half day with the impeachment and a half day getting my people nominated and confirmed in the Senate as well as moving on the (COVID) package.”
In new remarks Wednesday, after Trump’s impeachment, Biden again appealed for a careful juggling act.
“I hope that the Senate leadership will find a way to deal with their Constitutional responsibilities on impeachment while also working on the other urgent business of this nation,” Biden said.