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A mob of rioters loyal to U.S. President Donald Trump storm the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.Kenny Holston/The New York Times News Service

The United States Congress never hurries. It moves slowly, deliberately, cautiously. It has little peripheral vision. It is not a multitasker. Still, as American humorist Will Rogers (1879-1935) once said, the country “has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer.”

The current situation will require the Congress to hammer in the morning and hammer in the evening if it is to power through a to-do list unlike any other – even as it seeks to heal.

Impeaching a sitting president. Debating whether that president should be forever banned from holding office. Allowing a new president to have a running start. Confirming cabinet officers. Passing an exemption so an Army general can serve as defence secretary. Fast-tracking legislation boosting COVID-19 payments to US$2,000. Creating an esprit among deeply divided lawmakers just now emerging from an unprecedented siege of Capitol Hill, even as a raging pandemic makes personal contact difficult.

In all, a huge order – one completely unsuited to the rhythms of Capitol Hill.

“There’s a lot of delusional behaviour going on,” said G. Calvin MacKenzie, whose 2001 Innocent Until Nominated: The Breakdown of the Presidential Appointments Process is regarded as the authoritative examination of the transition process. “Everybody’s distracted. The idea that all this can happen at the same time and at top speed makes no sense.”

And yet Congress is facing a crisis with only two possible analogues: when Abraham Lincoln took office in 1861, after seven Southern states had seceded from the Union, and when Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president in 1933 in the depths of the Great Depression.

House Democrats announced Monday they would proceed with impeaching the President this week and they almost certainly will succeed. The Senate is required to take up a House impeachment when it is presented to the chamber and to begin its trial, conducted by the Chief Justice. But the House Speaker has discretion over when to turn over that impeachment resolution, and Nancy Pelosi may delay that delivery until the Senate has a chance to deal with some of the nominees for president-elect Joe Biden’s cabinet.

That delay may be as long as 100 days, a period of special meaning in U.S. politics. Though it takes its meaning from the time (“les Cent Jours”) between Napoleon’s exile to Elba and his 1815 return to Paris and defeat at Waterloo, the first 100 days have become an important measuring point for new presidential administrations since FDR shepherded 15 major pieces of legislation through Congress in 1933.

FDR’s cabinet was sworn in on Inauguration Day itself. That haste clearly cannot be replicated in the Biden case, in part because Roosevelt’s inauguration was five weeks later in the calendar year than Mr. Biden’s, giving Congress more time to examine the 32nd president’s nominees.

And the Biden cabinet faces special hurdles.

The Senate will likely remain in Republican hands until the election of the two Georgia Democrats is certified by the state, which could come after Mr. Biden takes office. Even when the power in the chamber shifts, lawmakers of both parties will have questions, and sometimes will have searing lines of inquiries, before the various Senate committees can vote to send the nominations to the floor. Then there may be floor debates about the qualifications of the nominations. One Democratic defection in a 50-50 Senate, where a newly installed vice-president Kamala Harris has the power to break a tie, could be calamitous to the Biden start.

Only one cabinet nominee has been rejected at the outset of an administration: George H.W. Bush’s nomination of former senator John G. Tower of Texas to be defence secretary was defeated in a 53-47 vote in 1989. Four nominations made at the beginning of an administration since 1993 have been withdrawn, principally because of insuperable opposition on Capitol Hill.

Mr. Biden’s nomination of retired four-star Army general Lloyd Austin to be his Pentagon chief requires special congressional authorization along with Senate confirmation. Because recent active-duty officers must win an exemption from both houses of Congress to become the top defence official, Mr. Biden will be the first president in two-thirds of a century not to have his Pentagon leader in place on the first day of his administration. The House armed services committee will take up the Austin matter on Jan. 21, but he will not be able to take office until the Senate votes on both the exemption and the confirmation.

The Democrats’ determination to impeach Donald Trump grows out of the conviction that the riot he incited on Capitol Hill was an attack by the executive branch on the legislative branch, a violation of the spirit of the separation of powers and the balance of powers in the Constitution. That is essentially the pretext Republicans used – Andrew Johnson’s defiance of the Tenure of Office Act requiring Senate approval for the removal of secretary of war Edwin Stanton – to undertake the first presidential impeachment, in 1868.

“He crossed a line,” Brenda Wineapple, author of a 2019 book on the Johnson impeachment, said in an interview. “Like Trump, he had pushed Congress to the limit. When he specifically violated a congressional law, it was a bridge too far. Congress felt it had to act.”

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