Around the time that Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner (D-Va.) settled into their seats for the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s senatorial roundtable in Tysons on Dec. 9, their colleagues on the House Judiciary Committee were about 20 miles away listening to arguments for and against impeaching the president of the United States.
If the House of Representatives passes articles of impeachment as many expect, the spotlight will shift to Kaine, Warner, and the rest of the Senate for a trial to determine whether to dismiss the charges levied against President Donald Trump or to take the unprecedented move of convicting him and removing him from office.
When asked about the impeachment probe by NBC4 Northern Virginia bureau chief Julie Carey, who moderated the roundtable, Warner cautioned against jumping to conclusions but added that, if the allegations coming out of the House hearings are true, it would set a “terrible precedent” for Congress to ignore them and not act.
“Let’s see what happens out of the House. I’m going to reserve judgment, if I’m a juror, until I hear all the facts,” Warner said. “…I hope all of us as senators will take a deep breath and listen and then, try to make an independent judgment.”
At the heart of the House’s impeachment inquiry is a phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky where the former allegedly pressured the latter to investigate his political opponents, specifically Democratic presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden, by threatening to withhold U.S. military aid to Ukraine.
The assertions that Trump used his office to get a foreign government to interfere in an American election for personal gain and that White House officials tried to cover up his actions emerged in an Aug. 12 whistleblower complaint directed to the House and Senate intelligence committee chairmen.
Shortly before House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) made the complaint public on Sept. 26, the White House released an incomplete transcript of the July 25 call in question that shows Trump asked Zelensky “to do us a favor” and to “look into” Biden.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced on Sept. 24 that the chamber would initiate a formal impeachment inquiry into Trump. The House approved a resolution endorsing the proceedings and laying out rules for the process on Oct. 31.
After House lawmakers spent two months investigating and held two weeks of public hearings in November, the House Select Committee on Intelligence released a report on Dec. 3 that found Trump “compromised national security to advance his personal political interests,” according to The Washington Post.
House Democrats led by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) presented articles of impeachment for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress on Tuesday.
If the judiciary committee votes to send the articles to the full House, a majority of the House has to pass at least one article to trigger a trial and move the proceedings to the Senate, which the Post says Democrats hope to make happen by Christmas.
With Democrats holding 233 seats in the House to the Republicans’ 197, the chamber is likely to affirm articles of impeachment, according to The New York Times.
Kaine says Congress will have to do “some bridge-building” after all this ends, regardless of the result, but pursuing impeachment was unavoidable once the whistleblower complaint came out in the shadow of a report by Department of Justice Special Counsel Robert Mueller on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
“The president essentially got a very clear warning: you cannot engage a foreign nation in an effort to subvert an American election,” Kaine said. “…We’re going to keep an open mind until the evidence is put on the table, but in a way, the president made this necessary by refusing to follow a clear red line that was put down before him.”
If the impeachment proceedings enter the trial stage, a conviction requires a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate, where Republicans hold an eight-seat advantage.
While the impeachment hearings were the most prominent topic of the hour, Kaine and Warner discussed a variety of subjects during the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce senatorial roundtable, from their hopes for the Virginia General Assembly after Democrats won majorities in both chambers on Nov. 5 to the need to lower the cost of living in the Commonwealth.
Warner argued that the seeds for the Democratic Party’s resurgence in Virginia were planted in 2001 when he and Kaine were elected as governor and lieutenant governor, respectively, on a platform that showed the party could be both progressive and fiscally responsible.
Kaine noted that Democrats have benefited from the state’s changing demographics and have succeeded in the past few years by running campaigns that emphasize practicality, rather than ideology.
Both senators agreed that the incoming Democratic delegates and state senators need to be thoughtful about choosing priorities when the General Assembly convenes in January for its 2020 session.
“There’s a lot of pent-up demand on the Democrats’ side,” Kaine said. “The challenge will be to not try to do too much at once.”
Among the priorities that have emerged since legislators started introducing bills and resolutions on Nov. 18 are no-excuse absentee voting, the Equal Rights Amendment, gun safety regulations, and a minimum wage increase.
State Sen. Richard Saslaw (D-35th), who will serve as the Senate majority leader in the upcoming session, has proposed raising Virginia’s minimum wage incrementally from the current federally mandated rate of $7.25 per hour to $10 an hour in 2020 and, eventually, $15 per hour effective on July 1, 2025.
Starting on July 1, 2026, the minimum wage would be adjusted annually to reflect increases in the consumer price index, which measures the average change over time in the prices of a basket of consumer goods.
Sens. Mamie Locke (D-2nd) and David Marsden (D-37th) have introduced competing minimum wage bills. Locke’s would raise the rate to $15 per hour by 2022, and Marsden’s would set a $9.75 per hour rate in 2020 before eventually reaching $15 an hour on July 1, 2025.
“I would say minimum wage should be set at the level where if you’re a full-time worker with a dependent and you’re working at minimum wage, you will be above the poverty level,” Kaine said. “And then, you shouldn’t wait 10 years to adjust it. You should adjust it incrementally with time, like we do with other federal programs.”
Some Democrats have also been pushing to repeal the state’s right-to-work law that prohibits agreements between employers and labor unions that require workers to be union members.
Gov. Ralph Northam indicated that he would not support eliminating right-to-work in remarks to his Advisory Council on Revenue Estimates on Nov. 25, but Del. Lee Carter (D-50th) has said he still plans to introduce repeal legislation in the upcoming session, though a bill has been filed yet.
Carter introduced a bill to repeal right to work during the General Assembly’s 2019 session that died in the House of Delegates’ committee on commerce and labor.
Kaine says that he believes people should not be forced to join a union against their wishes, but he also understands the criticism that the existing law allows individuals to benefit from the work of labor unions without contributing anything.
“I think you can maintain right to work – you don't have to join a union if you don't want to – while dealing with the free rider problem,” Kaine said. “…I don’t know what bills will be introduced or who will introduce them, but that’s where I stand on this, sort of the principle.”
Warner did not elaborate on his stance on repealing right-to-work, saying he wants to see what the state legislature does, but both senators said Virginia needs to improve its worker protections.
In its 2019 Best States to Work Index published on Aug. 22, the global anti-poverty organization Oxfam America ranked Virginia as the worst state to work, including Washington, D.C., based on its policies related to worker protections, wages, and the right to organize.
“There’s a lot of different views on that,” Warner said regarding a possible right-to-work repeal. “But I do think, you know, we are not well-served when Virginia is ranked 51st…for workers. Nobody’s well served by that.”