Senators ready for question time in impeachment trial

Senators are preparing to come off the sidelines of the impeachment trial as the proceeding moves to its next phase. 

After days of being spotted furiously scribbling notes from their desks on the Senate floor, senators will soon get to start asking, albeit silently, questions of both House impeachment managers and President Trump’s defense team. 

The 16-hour period, which could start as soon as Tuesday, will give both parties a chance to poke at gaps in the other side’s case. It will also lead to plenty of tea-leaf reading as observers scrutinize what the questions reveal about the senators considering the merits of the case.

Senators have been formulating how they will ask their questions as they’ve listened to House Democrats and Trump’s legal team make their case since Wednesday. 

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who has not said if he will vote to convict or acquit Trump, said he was currently working with his staff to compile questions. 

“I’m working with my staff right now [based on] things we have heard,” Manchin said. 

Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who like Manchin is viewed as a swing vote, added that he would “try to pair them down.” 

“You know, there’s 100 of us [and] everybody’s got questions, so we’ll see how it goes,” he said. 

Senators filed more than 150 questions during the 1999 Clinton impeachment trial, using two days to work through the pile. Only one question in that trial came from a bipartisan pair of senators: Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.). 

It’s unclear if there will be a bipartisan question submitted during Trump’s trial. 

Manchin opened the door to submitting a bipartisan question this week, noting that “if there was going to be a bipartisan question, I’m more than open to that.” 

“I’m happy to work with my Republican colleagues,” he added. 

Jones, however, appeared to shoot down working on questions with his colleagues. 

“No,” he said, asked about the possibility. “These are my questions … and I consider myself pretty bipartisan.”

There are few guidelines for the question-and-answer period under an impeachment rules resolution passed last week. 

“Upon the conclusion of the president’s presentation, senators may question the parties for a period of time not to exceed 16 hours,” the resolution reads — the only sentence that lays out how the questions will work. 

During the Clinton trial, questions alternated between sides with five minutes given for each answer, though managers and the president’s legal team at times extended beyond their allotted time. 

Senators in both parties say they expect the questions to be filtered through leadership, who will be responsible for condensing and weeding out repetitive questions. The questions would be sent by leadership to Chief Justice John Roberts, who would read the question, which side it is addressed to and which senators the question is from. 

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) added that Democrats will be able to ask questions of both sides and signaled he’ll take a hands-off approach for how he narrows down the incoming suggestions from his caucus. 

“The only thing we might try to do is make sure that the questions — if 10 people want the same question, that we ask it once, OK, in the name of the 10,” Schumer said. 

He added that he expected there would be a “all kinds of different questions” and a “whole lot” of them. 

Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) told The Hill there had been “general” conversations about how the caucus will field questions and that Democrats were being asked to give them to counsel in Schumer’s office. 

On the Republican side of the aisle, GOP senators say they expect to send their requests through Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky). 

“We’re considering a couple,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), asked if he would be asking questions. 

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) added that senators have received the sheets of paper that they’ll use to submit their questions. 

“The cloakroom gathers them, and then they’ll try to put them into a semblance that if there are multiples asking the same thing they’ll come back to us and ask can we combine these into putting them together into one,” Rounds said. “But all of them will be identified as to who the questions are coming from.”

The questions could provide insight into what’s on the minds of a core group of potential swing-vote senators. 

With press restrictions in place in the Capitol, reporters have had a limited opportunity to question lawmakers about what they are thinking on witnesses, the remaining wildcard in the trial or whether they will vote to convict or acquit Trump. 

“I’ve taken a lot of notes — it takes me back to law school,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told The Hill. “Along the way I made little asterisks and notations about what I want to see, what questions I still have.” 

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) predicted he would ask questions but hadn’t started formulating them yet. 

“I think all senators get the chance to ask questions,” he said. “I presume I’ll have some.” 

Alexander Bolton contributed

Tags Charles Schumer Dick Durbin Donald Trump doug jones Impeachment Joe Manchin Lisa Murkowski Mike Rounds Mitch McConnell Mitt Romney Susan Collins Thom Tillis

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