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 McConnellPelosi eyes end of April to bring a fourth coronavirus relief bill to the floor Progressive group knocks McConnell for talking judicial picks during coronavirus Overnight Health Care: CDC recommends face coverings in public | Resistance to social distancing sparks new worries | Controversy over change of national stockpile definition | McConnell signals fourth coronavirus bill MORE (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerBiden calls on Trump to appoint coronavirus 'supply commander' Democrats press Trump, GOP for funding for mail-in ballots Schumer doubles down in call for Trump to name coronavirus supply czar 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDemocrats ask EPA, Interior to pause rulemaking amid coronavirus Senator Tom Coburn's government oversight legacy Democratic lawmakers demand government stop deporting unaccompanied children 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 GrahamGraham asks colleagues to support call for China to close wet markets Justice IG pours fuel on looming fight over FISA court Trump says he's considering restricting travel to coronavirus 'hot spots' 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 BluntGOP senators begin informal talks on new coronavirus stimulus Five things being discussed for a new coronavirus relief bill Hillicon Valley: Apple rolls out coronavirus screening app, website | Pompeo urged to crack down on coronavirus misinformation from China | Senators push FTC on price gouging | Instacart workers threaten strike 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 ShelbyFive things being discussed for a new coronavirus relief bill Infrastructure bill gains new steam as coronavirus worsens Coronavirus bill includes more than billion in SNAP funding 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 BidenSome Sanders top allies have urged him to withdraw from 2020 race: report Sunday shows preview: As coronavirus spreads in the U.S., officials from each sector of public life weigh in Trump defends firing of intel watchdog, calling him a 'disgrace' 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.”

ADVERTISEMENT

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 CramerInfrastructure bill gains new steam as coronavirus worsens GOP senators urge Saudi Arabia to leave OPEC GOP senator apologizes for tweet calling Pelosi 'retarded,' blames autocorrect 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.”