Trump's trial a major test for McConnell, Schumer

The looming Senate impeachment trial is a major test for both 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.) as they square off in what could be the most defining battle on Capitol Hill this year before the 2020 election.

The stakes for McConnell and Schumer, who have been longtime political adversaries, are high.

In 1999, Democrats scored a big victory in President Clinton’s impeachment trial by convincing a handful of Republicans to cross the aisle and vote against the two articles of impeachment passed by the House. Ten Republicans voted against Article I charging Clinton with perjury and five Republicans voted against Article II charging the president with obstruction of justice.
Clinton and his allies hailed it as an acquittal and saw depriving Republicans — who controlled the chamber with 55 seats — of a majority vote for impeachment as a major victory. Sen. Tom HarkinThomas (Tom) Richard HarkinTrump's trial a major test for McConnell, Schumer New Hampshire parochialism, not whiteness, bedevils Democrats Democrats must question possible political surveillance MORE (D-Iowa) was spotted exchanging high fives on media row in the Russell Rotunda immediately after the vote.

ADVERTISEMENT

If Schumer can convince four Senate Republicans to vote to subpoena additional witnesses and documents, as he has demanded for weeks, it would be a big win. And if he can convince any Republicans to vote for articles of impeachment — something that Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi eyes end of April to bring a fourth coronavirus relief bill to the floor Pelosi, Democrats using coronavirus to push for big tax cuts for blue state residents US watchdog vows 'aggressive' oversight after intel official fired MORE (D-Calif.) failed to do in the House — it will be a bigger victory.

McConnell’s goal, meanwhile, is to win President TrumpDonald John TrumpPelosi eyes end of April to bring a fourth coronavirus relief bill to the floor NBA to contribute 1 million surgical masks to NY essential workers Private equity firm with ties to Kushner asks Trump administration to relax rules on loan program: report MORE a fast acquittal and to keep his conference unified on the biggest vote: an up-or-down vote on the articles of impeachment.

“McConnell is the majority leader and controls the schedule, but Schumer is the chief [Democratic] strategist, the head of the messaging operation. Depending on how things break it could be a very joyous occasion for one of them or a very unhappy one,” said Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University who has served several stints as a Senate fellow.

Baker said the test for Schumer’s success is luring four Republicans to vote with Democrats to subpoena additional witnesses and documents. There is some dispute on whether Chief Justice John Roberts can break a 50-50 tie if all Democrats unite with three Republican defections.

The test for McConnell will be to preserve party unity and to block additional witness testimony and document review that could extend the trial for weeks longer.

“As far as McConnell is concerned, [the goal] is to get it over with as quickly as possible and to keep his conference together, prevent them from straying. If he does that, I think he’d count it a success,” Baker added.

ADVERTISEMENT

Schumer and McConnell have battled many times before. They both served as heads of their respective party campaign committees and Schumer targeted McConnell in 2008, but the Kentucky legislator triumphed. In 2017, Schumer won the fight over ObamaCare and a year later, McConnell scored a major win with the Senate’s approval of Supreme Court nominee Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughProgressive group knocks McConnell for talking judicial picks during coronavirus Trump nominates former Kavanaugh clerk for influential appeals court Coronavirus isn't the only reason Congress should spend less time in DC MORE.

Schumer’s and McConnell’s allies are already trying to manage expectations ahead of the trial, which could take unexpected turns.

Schumer on Tuesday acknowledged he doesn’t know for sure whether four GOP senators will vote to call witnesses and subpoena documents.

“I can’t predict whether we’ll have witnesses or not. At first, everyone said no. McConnell seemed to rule the roost. Now we’re having some people entertain it, but you don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “We’re in better shape than we were a few weeks ago, but there are no certainties here at all.”

A person close to Schumer said the Democratic leader has already achieved a victory by focusing public attention on McConnell’s refusal to agree to witnesses and documents at the start of the trial.

“The first test was to define what a fair trial is: Sen. Schumer and Senate Democrats succeeded in doing that and now everyone knows that a fair trial must have witnesses and documents, and a trial without that is a cover-up,” the Democratic source said.

A Senate GOP aide said Senate Republicans shouldn’t be expected to walk in lockstep throughout the trial and that defections on procedural votes, such as calling former national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonChina sees chance to expand global influence amid pandemic Trump ignores science at our peril Bolton defends decision to shutter NSC pandemic office MORE to testify, shouldn’t be seen as big surprises or setbacks.

The ultimate metric may be whether Trump wins reelection in November — and carries Senate GOP candidates across the finish line to victory or down with him in defeat.

To make any headway with Republican moderates, Schumer will need to whip up public pressure. He also has to worry about keeping moderates in his own caucus in the fold, such as Sens. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinPoliticians mourn the death of Bill Withers Pressure mounts for national parks closure amid coronavirus White House, Senate reach deal on trillion stimulus package MORE (D-W.Va.), Doug Jones (D-Ala.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).

A new poll commissioned by The Club for Growth PAC, a conservative advocacy group, shows that nearly half of West Virginia voters would view Manchin more negatively if he votes to remove Trump from office.

McConnell could score a public relations victory by picking off any of them to portray the House articles of impeachment as an unwarranted overreach, an argument he has made on the floor repeatedly.

McConnell has kept in close contact with his members. He invited one pivotal vote, Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiOil giants meet at White House amid talk of buying strategic reserves GOP senators begin informal talks on new coronavirus stimulus Murkowski pushes Mnuchin for oil company loans MORE (R-Alaska), to his Capitol office to discuss the impeachment trial procedures as soon as senators returned from the Christmas break. He has also negotiated extensively with Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsGOP senators begin informal talks on new coronavirus stimulus GOP presses for swift Ratcliffe confirmation to intel post Campaigns pivot toward health awareness as races sidelined by coronavirus MORE (R-Maine), another crucial moderate, on including language in the organizing resolution for the trial that would ensure a debate and vote on motions to subpoena witnesses.

ADVERTISEMENT

Collins, who faces a tough reelection fight this year and has come under heavy pressure from Democrats, can point to her work on amending the organizing resolution to protect her brand as an independent voice, something that could be important to voters in November.

Collins, Murkowski and two other moderates, Sens. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyTrump selects White House lawyer for coronavirus inspector general 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 On The Money: Economy sheds 701K jobs in March | Why unemployment checks could take weeks | Confusion surrounds 9B in small-business loans MORE (R-Utah) and Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderSticking points force stimulus package talks to spill into Sunday GOP drafting stimulus package without deal with Democrats Senate coronavirus stimulus talks spill into Saturday MORE (R-Tenn.), participated in negotiations with McConnell on drafting the organizing resolution.

“There were a lot of discussions with the leader and his staff on that issue,” Collins said.

While McConnell agreed to guarantee a vote at a later date on subpoenaing witnesses, he did not include a similar guarantee for a vote to dismiss the articles of impeachment — further earning points with GOP moderates.

Neither Schumer nor McConnell are twisting arms. Instead, they’re using careful diplomacy with colleagues.

“Most of the people on the outside think there’s this arm-twisting and heavy whipping going on. It almost never occurs, almost never. Most of it comes from the White House when they’re trying to get senators to come this way,” said Senate Democratic Whip 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 (Ill.).

ADVERTISEMENT

“As a person who’s had this job for a few years, I’ve never, ever believed that pressure tactics work in the Senate,” he added.

Alexander, who applauded McConnell’s decision not to promise conservative colleagues a vote on a motion to dismiss the articles of impeachment, said the GOP leader has not pressed him either way on how to vote.

“I’m trying to conduct myself as an individual senator,” Alexander said. “He hasn’t told me how to vote.

“He knows better than to tell me how to vote,” added Alexander, who is not seeking reelection.