Senators push for deal on impeachment trial rules to avoid political brawl

Senators are hoping for a bipartisan deal that would set up ground rules for a likely impeachment trial in order to avoid a political food fight.

Any Senate trial is likely to be high-drama and politically charged, but lawmakers want Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSchumer: Trump's team made case for new witnesses 'even stronger' Trump, Democrats risk unintended consequences with impeachment arguments CNN's Axelrod says impeachment didn't come up until 80 minutes into focus group MORE (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTrump legal team offers brisk opening defense of president Impeachment has been a dud for Democrats Trump insults Democrats, calls on followers to watch Fox News ahead of impeachment trial MORE (D-N.Y.) to strike an agreement on a resolution that would establish guardrails for the trial.

Without a deal, the debate over the rules for the impeachment trial could quickly devolve into partisan fighting, according to the lawmakers, with Republicans only needing a simple majority to force through a resolution setting up the process for the trial.

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Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDemocrats see Mulvaney as smoking gun witness at Trump trial Trump legal team offers brisk opening defense of president Democrats feel political momentum swinging to them on impeachment MORE (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat who was in office during President Clinton's impeachment trial in 1999, said he was an “optimist” about the chances for a deal setting up a set of procedures.

“I’m an optimist. You need to be to serve in this place. And I think once the senators of both parties realize the gravity of the situation, if it comes to us, that we can rise to the occasion,” Durbin said.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for week two of impeachment trial Trump defense team signals focus on Schiff Trump legal team offers brisk opening defense of president MORE (R-S.C.), who was one of the House managers during the Clinton impeachment, voiced confidence that Schumer and McConnell will be able to hash out an agreement despite the high-stakes environment around a potential trial.

“We’d do a resolution setting the terms and conditions of the trial and I’m sure somehow the Clinton model would be used,” Graham added.

The Senate’s rules lay out some of the impeachment guidelines, including the start time for the trial and the expectation that senators will work every day but Sunday.

But there’s also a precedent for the Senate being able to reach a more detailed agreement on a framework, potentially providing a path for McConnell and Schumer as they gear up to try to replicate the effort ahead of a likely Trump impeachment trial.

“I believe that the fact that there is a process that we would go through if they don’t agree encourages them to agree,” said Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntMeadows says Trump told him he didn't threaten senators on impeachment vote Democrats feel political momentum swinging to them on impeachment Trump team to present case for about two hours on Saturday MORE (R-Mo.), a member of GOP leadership. “I think the fact that there is an everyday, six days a week, with no real specific structure beyond, that should encourage structure.”

The Senate passed a resolution 100-0 during the Clinton impeachment trial that established the procedure for filing motions, how long senators would get to ask questions and how witnesses would be called.

“What happened was, we knew some basics just by virtue of precedent ... but we really had to sit down among ourselves,” Durbin said, recounting the 1999 effort. “I think we rose to the occasion, handled it in a constitutionally responsible way.”

Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbySenate fails to get deal to speed up fight over impeachment rules Roberts under pressure from both sides in witness fight GOP senator on Trump soliciting foreign interference: 'Those are just statements' MORE (R-Ala.), who was also in the chamber for the Clinton trial, added that he thought Schumer and McConnell "would work it out.”

"I have confidence that they’ll work it out quickly,” Shelby said. “All anybody should want is a fair process.”

But the Clinton impeachment negotiations also highlight potential pitfalls if senators aren’t able to reach an agreement.

A second resolution passed by the Senate during the Clinton impeachment trial on witnesses broke down along party lines. The resolution allowed for subpoenas for key figures such as Monica Lewinsky, Sidney Blumenthal and Vernon Jordan Jr. to testify as part of the trial.

Senators view an impeachment trial as all but guaranteed as House Democrats plow deeper into their impeachment inquiry. The probe was sparked by a whistleblower complaint about Trump asking the Ukraine government to look into former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenDes Moines Register endorses Elizabeth Warren as Democratic presidential nominee Sanders faces lingering questions about appeal to women voters George Conway: Witness missing from impeachment trial is Trump MORE and his son Hunter Biden.

House Democrats are expected to move into the next phase of proceedings next week when they start to hold public hearings.

Schumer and McConnell haven’t yet begun negotiations over what the trial proceedings would look like.

“We have not started discussing this. If the House acts, I think the place to start, we take a look at what the agreement was 20 years ago as a starting place and discuss how we may be able to agree to handle the process,” McConnell told reporters during a weekly press conference.

Schumer declined to get into the potential process during a separate press conference, but when asked about the agreement reached in Clinton impeachment trial he said, “I hope that could happen again.”

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The resolution setting up a process only needs a simple majority to be adopted, meaning absent a deal McConnell could be able to muscle through a resolution as long as he’s able to hold together most of his caucus, given that Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the chamber.

Senators are also able to try to amend the resolution on the rules once it’s on the Senate floor, according to a senior GOP aide.

That could set up a freewheeling process where any senator could try to force a vote, similar to a budget vote-a-rama — a potential curveball to Senate deliberations and a contrast to the normally tightly controlled Senate floor. However, Durbin cautioned that most senators bypassed trying to do so while establishing the Clinton rules.

But the Senate, like the country, has grown increasingly partisan in the 20 years since the Clinton impeachment trial. The dynamic, and the looming 2020 presidential election, could test McConnell and Schumer’s ability to get a deal.

Asked about the chances of a resolution governing the impeachment trial rules, Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.) said, “Good luck with that.”

“Do I think it will happen? The short is no, the long answer is hell no,” Kennedy added. “This will be the first partisan impeachment in the history of our country."

"I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think we’ll even be able to get agreement on the rules,” Kennedy also said.

Sen. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerThe Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' Collins walks impeachment tightrope Senate Republicans muscle through rules for Trump trial MORE (R-N.D.) added that it was “unlikely” that the Senate would be able to replicate the 100-0 vote from the Clinton era but said senators should be interested in reaching an efficient system for the trial.

“On the one hand you can look at it and go well that’s impossible,” Cramer said, “but on the other hand, I mean, both of them want to get through it. Obviously there has to be a path forward.”