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McConnell struggles to maintain GOP unity post-Bolton

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell halts in-person Republican lunches amid COVID-19 surge Biden and reproductive health rights Biden's Cabinet a battleground for future GOP White House hopefuls MORE (R-Ky.) is struggling to maintain control of President TrumpDonald John TrumpPennsylvania Supreme Court strikes down GOP bid to stop election certification Biden looks to career officials to restore trust, morale in government agencies Sunday shows preview: US health officials brace for post-holiday COVID-19 surge MORE’s impeachment trial following news of former national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonPressure grows from GOP for Trump to recognize Biden election win Sunday shows - Virus surge dominates ahead of fraught Thanksgiving holiday Bolton calls on GOP leadership to label Trump's behavior 'inexcusable' MORE’s bombshell manuscript. 

McConnell on Monday deflected growing calls, including from fellow GOP senators, to allow testimony from Bolton and other potential witnesses, which could prolong the trial and deal a massive blow to Trump and Republicans.

Senate debate over whether to call additional witnesses was upended Sunday following a New York Times report revealing that Bolton claims in a draft of his forthcoming book that Trump told him directly he wanted to freeze U.S. assistance to Ukraine to spur an investigation of former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenPennsylvania Supreme Court strikes down GOP bid to stop election certification Biden looks to career officials to restore trust, morale in government agencies Biden transition adds new members to coronavirus task force MORE.

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McConnell’s strategy all along has been to keep the trial as short as possible and avoid giving more political ammo to Democrats to use against Trump and vulnerable Republican senators in the November elections.

The GOP leader urged fellow Republicans at a lunch meeting Monday to keep their powder dry and not make a decision on the need to subpoena witnesses and documents until the end of next week, after Trump’s defense team has presented its arguments and senators have had a chance to ask questions on the Senate floor.

McConnell told colleagues that they don’t need to answer persistent media questions about additional subpoenas until phase one of the trial is complete, as outlined in the organizing resolution passed last week by all 53 Republican senators, according to senators at the meeting.

Sen. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerRepublicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Calls mount to start transition as Biden readies Cabinet picks Pressure grows from GOP for Trump to recognize Biden election win MORE (R-N.D.), who attended the lunch, said McConnell told GOP senators to “remember we passed a rules package that gives us an opportunity to vote on this very issue of witnesses after we hear both sides and ask our questions.”

“He just reiterated that a couple times, as did some other people, just to remind us that we have dealt with this and we don’t have to deal with the next step of it until the end of phase one,” Cramer added.

“Take a breath, we’re going to vote on witnesses,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Barrasso to seek top spot on Energy and Natural Resources Committee | Forest Service finalizes rule weakening environmental review of its projects | Biden to enlist Agriculture, Transportation agencies in climate fight Senate advances energy regulator nominees despite uncertainty of floor vote Barrasso to seek top spot on Energy and Natural Resources Committee MORE (Wyo.), noting that Trump’s lawyers have one more day of presentations followed by 16 hours for senators to ask questions.

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McConnell’s strategy has been working so far, but there’s little room for error, making the Bolton news all the more challenging for the Kentucky Republican.

Two key Republicans — Sens. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyBiden's Cabinet a battleground for future GOP White House hopefuls The Memo: GOP mulls its future after Trump Biden teams to meet with Trump administration agencies MORE (Utah) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsBiden's Cabinet a battleground for future GOP White House hopefuls Two more parting shots from Trump aimed squarely at disabled workers Trump transition order follows chorus of GOP criticism MORE (Maine), who faces a tough reelection bid — on Monday indicated they are more likely to support additional witness testimony. Romney made a forceful case at the Republican lunch for calling Bolton to testify, but it didn’t appear to immediately change any opinions.

He told reporters earlier in the day that it’s “increasingly likely that other Republicans will join those of us who think we should hear from John Bolton,” but that statement was slapped down by newly appointed Sen. Kelly LoefflerKelly LoefflerMcConnell halts in-person Republican lunches amid COVID-19 surge Sunday shows preview: US health officials brace for post-holiday COVID-19 surge Club for Growth to launch ad blitz in Georgia to juice GOP turnout MORE (R-Ga.).

“Sadly, my colleague @SenatorRomney wants to appease the left by calling witnesses who will slander @realDonaldTrump during their 15 minutes of fame. The circus is over. It’s time to move on!” Loeffler tweeted.

Separately, Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyAppeals court rules NSA's bulk phone data collection illegal Dunford withdraws from consideration to chair coronavirus oversight panel GOP senators push for quick, partial reopening of economy MORE (R-Pa.) has floated the possibility of accepting Bolton’s testimony in exchange for a witness who could help Trump’s case, such as Joe Biden's son Hunter Biden. 

Other potential swing votes on subpoenaing more witnesses and documents include GOP Sens. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanBiden says transition outreach from Trump administration has been 'sincere' The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump holds his last turkey pardon ceremony The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Trump OKs transition; Biden taps Treasury, State experience MORE (Ohio), Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranIt's time for Congress to act: Save jobs and stabilize the aerospace industry Lobbying world This World Suicide Prevention Day, let's recommit to protecting the lives of our veterans MORE (Kan.) and Cory GardnerCory GardnerHillicon Valley: Trump fires top federal cybersecurity official, GOP senators push back | Apple to pay 3 million to resolve fight over batteries | Los Angeles Police ban use of third-party facial recognition software Senate passes bill to secure internet-connected devices against cyber vulnerabilities Democrats vent to Schumer over Senate majority failure MORE (Colo.), a vulnerable Republican up for reelection this year. Four defections would allow Democrats to introduce new evidence in the trial through witness testimony and administration records.

But McConnell has declined to endorse the plan floated by Toomey, preferring instead to wait and debate the question of witnesses. Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerProtect America's houses of worship in year-end appropriations package Club for Growth to launch ad blitz in Georgia to juice GOP turnout Inequality of student loan debt underscores possible Biden policy shift MORE (D-N.Y.) has likewise ruled out any deal that would require the Bidens to testify in exchange for hearing from Bolton or acting White House chief of staff Mick MulvaneyMick MulvaneyMick Mulvaney 'concerned' by Giuliani role in Trump election case On The Money: Senate releases spending bills, setting up talks for December deal | McConnell pushing for 'highly targeted' COVID deal | CFPB vet who battled Trump will lead Biden plans to overhaul agency Consumer bureau vet who battled Trump will lead Biden plans to overhaul agency MORE

Republican leaders last week expressed confidence they would have the votes to block the Democrats’ witness request, but that party unity appeared to be in serious doubt Monday morning.

One Republican senator who requested anonymity to discuss the lunch said there was a lot of anxiety within the GOP conference immediately after news of Bolton’s manuscript.

But the lawmaker said McConnell was able to regain control of the situation at lunch.

“McConnell is a very wise old owl. His take was, ‘We’re going to have two more days of the president’s counsel making their case and then we have Q&A and we’ll see where we are,” the senator said.

By Monday evening, after Trump’s lawyers had spent the afternoon going on offense and raising questions about Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine, GOP senators were feeling better.

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“Clearly we’re in a lot better frame of mind and a lot better shape than we were,” said a second Republican senator, who requested anonymity to talk about the views of colleagues.

Senate Republican Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneRepublicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden Democrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks Overnight Defense: Pentagon set for tighter virus restrictions as top officials tests positive | Military sees 11th COVID-19 death | House Democrats back Senate language on Confederate base names MORE (R-S.D.) last week indicated the vote on witnesses and additional documents would come in the middle of this week, but GOP leaders are now planning to hold the crucial vote on Friday, allowing more time for the arguments of Trump’s defense team to sink in and the uproar over Bolton’s manuscript to die down. 

Two potential swing votes — Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiBiden's Cabinet a battleground for future GOP White House hopefuls Trump administration denies permit for controversial Pebble Mine Trump transition order follows chorus of GOP criticism MORE (R-Alaska) and Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderWe need a college leader as secretary of education As Biden administration ramps up, Trump legal effort drags on The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump holds his last turkey pardon ceremony MORE (R-Tenn.), who is retiring at the end of this term — said Monday they would stick to their original plan of waiting until after phase one of the trial to decide on witnesses, as McConnell has urged. 

Murkowski said in a tweet Monday afternoon “there is an appropriate time for us to evaluate whether we need additional information,” adding “that time is almost here.” 

Alexander highlighted his effort to ensure a vote on witnesses by week’s end. 

"I worked with my colleagues to make sure we have a chance after we've heard the arguments, after we've asked our questions to decide if we need additional evidence, and I'll decide that at that time," he said.

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Republican leaders spent much of Monday downplaying Bolton’s claim in hopes of keeping the number of potential Republican defections at two.

As of mid-afternoon Monday, they appeared to have held the line for another day.

Speaking to reporters after the lunch, Cramer said he thinks "it’s about the same as it’s always been” when asked whether sentiments are changing in the GOP conference. 

Barrasso said, “I didn’t hear anything new at lunch from any member other than what they’ve been saying all the way through the process.” 

Murkowski, however, also acknowledged she is "curious" to hear what Bolton has to say.

Democrats think GOP unity on the question of witnesses is starting to crack. 

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“This is getting to be a little bit, in this sense maybe, like Watergate. Every few days there’s another revelation and another revelation and another revelation. And the case gets stronger and stronger,” Schumer said Monday afternoon.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said Republicans “are in a real twist,” adding, “They will be held accountable for putting their blinders on.” 

Jordain Carney contributed.