On Dec. 18, the House of Representatives impeached Donald Trump in a historic moment, making him just the third president in American history to be impeached. The next step in the impeachment process would normally be an impeachment trial in the Senate, but top Democrats aren't convinced that Republican senators will organize a fair trial. But what exactly is the Senate's role in the impeachment process, and can the Senate impeach without the House? The Constitution gives the House and the Senate distinct capabilities.
The Constitution's explicit references to impeachment are limited. However, the Constitution does specify that only the House can impeach a president. The Senate, meanwhile, has the power to remove a president from office and potentially bar them from holding future offices. Here's what that means: The House can impeach a president without the Senate's approval and the Senate can't impeach a president at all. On the flip side, the Senate can vote to remove a president from office and the House doesn't get to vote on that.
Congress is currently in recess until the new year, but that hasn't stopped a contentious debate between lawmakers about Trump's impeachment trial. After the House voted to impeach Trump on Dec. 18, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi indicated she was thinking about withholding the articles of impeachment from the Senate until Republican senators could guarantee a fair impeachment trial. Pelosi and other Democratic leaders have called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to allow key Trump administration leaders — such as acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and former national security advisor John Bolton — to testify during the Senate's impeachment trial. McConnell, however, rejected this call, and has expressed his intention to work closely with White House counsel to organize a brief trial despite criticism from both parties.
According to The Washington Post, McConnell may not actually have as much power to shape the impeachment trial as he appears to. The House will still have the ability to prosecute their case in the Senate, and Chief Justice John Roberts — not McConnell — will ultimately preside over the trial. Nevertheless, the partisan nature of Trump's impeachment has called into question just how much power each chamber of Congress has in the process. In the House, it was a Democratic majority that successfully impeached Trump, and no Republicans voted in favor of impeachment. The Senate, meanwhile, contains a Republican majority, and it is therefore extremely unlikely that two-thirds of the Senate will vote to remove Trump from office.
So here's the deal: The House can impeach a president without the Senate, but they can't go any further than that. The Senate can't impeach anyone, but only they can remove a president from office — and potentially bar them from holding elected office in the future. By giving both the House and the Senate a certain role in the impeachment process, the Constitution effectively limits both chambers' power despite not saying a great deal about how impeachment should work. In Trump's case, the Senate's ability to organize an impeachment trial and vote on removal from office will likely work in his favor. If the Senate acquits Trump as expected, he will be able to finish out the remainder of his term and even continue running for reelection. But if Democrats can't get Trump out of office by impeaching him, Americans can expect Democratic presidential candidates to redouble their efforts to unseat him in 2020.