Senate moves to impeachment endgame

The Senate is moving into the final phase of President Trump’s impeachment trial, but senators expect a drawn-out floor fight before final votes on two articles of impeachment either late Friday or early Saturday morning.  

After 35 hours of opening arguments and 16 hours of senators asking questions, the Senate is finally getting ready to move into what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) envisions as the ending phase of the trial.

GOP leaders expect they will have the votes on Friday to defeat a motion to consider subpoenas for additional witnesses and documents, blocking Democratic demands for the testimony of former national security adviser John Bolton, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and two other witnesses.

The vote appeared settled Thursday night after Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), one of four potential Republican swing votes, announced he would oppose a motion to consider subpoenas of additional witnesses and documents. 

Alexander said there was no need for additional evidence because he said the House managers had proved that Trump had withheld security assistance to Ukraine to spur officials there to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son. But he said they failed to convince him it was an impeachable offense. 

Alexander in a statement said the House managers proved that Trump withheld U.S. aid “at least in part” to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Bidens and criticized Trump’s conduct as inappropriate. He said, however, it did not justify removing the president from office.

Without Alexander, Republicans feel confident the motion to call for additional witnesses and documents will fail Friday. 

McConnell warned in private meetings this week that voting to allow witnesses would create an open-ended process that one Senate GOP aide described as “the Wild West” whereby Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) could prolong the trial for days or weeks and force vulnerable GOP incumbents to take a slew of tough votes.

“I think people are just now beginning to understand that … it’s not just one witness and it could entail months of delay,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). 

The organizing resolution the Senate adopted last week by a party-line vote sets up a four-hour debate before a vote on considering new evidence. McConnell plans to use that debate time for closing arguments and then to move quickly to acquit Trump. 

One remaining question is whether Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a key swing vote, will join two other moderates — Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) — to subpoena new evidence.

If she does, that could result in a 50-50 deadlock whereby the motion to consider subpoenas would fail unless Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts steps in to break the tie. The scenario came up in a closed-door GOP lunch on Thursday. Lawmakers, however, say it’s unlikely. 

Even Democrats predicted that Roberts would not want to risk politicizing the high court. 

“I think there’s a powerful argument for him doing what’s right in the interests of justice. I don’t think he will. I understand why he wouldn’t,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). 

Asked about the potential for a tie as he left a closed-door GOP dinner on Thursday night, Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) said, “I think we’ll avoid it.”

One Democratic senator said Schumer is exploring options with colleagues to make it as difficult as possible for GOP colleagues to end the trial quickly.

“We’re thinking about those options, whether we can change the rule, what kind of motions we’re going to make. We’re not going quietly into that good night,” said the senator, who requested anonymity to discuss internal discussions. 

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) characterized Democrats as “looking at all of our parliamentary options to try to force as many votes as we can to put Republicans on the record.”

Blumenthal and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) say they will try to force the Senate into an open deliberation on the question of having additional witnesses and on the articles of impeachment, even though a Senate-wide discussion is unlikely to produce a breakthrough. 

“In every past impeachment proceeding, there has been debate and deliberations,” Blumenthal said, noting that every senator had 15 minutes to persuade colleagues during the closed-door deliberations at President Clinton’s 1999 impeachment trial. 

What’s not clear is whether Schumer can force votes on subpoenaing witnesses as amendments to the motion to move to a final up-or-down vote, or whether additional subpoenas will be out of order once the Senate defeats a motion on considering new evidence. That could depend on a ruling by Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth McDonough. 

Republican leaders now fully expect the motion for additional witnesses and documents to fail and plan to then move quickly to have an up-or-down vote on articles of impeachment. 

GOP lawmakers concede, however, that Democrats will have an opportunity to amend the motion, which could drag out the debate until Friday evening or early Saturday morning. 

“The closing arguments are going to be two hours for each side tomorrow afternoon probably starting at 1 o’clock. [When] we’re finished with that, then the vote would occur on the issue of witnesses. If we are able to say, ‘No, we want to go right now to final judgment,’ that we would move in that direction and stay there until that work is decided and completed Friday evening,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Barrasso (Wyo.).

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) indicated that Friday’s session could last for 12 hours. Meanwhile, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said if Republicans block witnesses that he expects “a series of motions from the Democrats expressing frustration with that decision.” 

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) predicted a final vote on the articles of impeachment at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. Saturday. 

McConnell plans to wrap the trial up on Friday evening, but a senior Senate Democratic aide says he would have to advance a resolution similar to the organizing resolution that set up phase one of the trial, which Democrats could try to change with various amendments. 

Barrasso said it’s possible that Schumer could force the Senate to debate the structure of the trial’s ending late into the night, as he did last week when senators didn’t finally approve the organizing resolution for phase one until around 2 a.m. Wednesday.

“If he starts offering motions — we defeated 11 in a row on the first day — we’re in the same situation. But we will continue to stay here through the night,” he said. “At some point the Democrats will realize their motions are being defeated.”

Tags Bill Clinton Charles Schumer Chris Murphy Donald Trump Impeachment Joe Biden John Barrasso John Bolton John Cornyn Lamar Alexander Lisa Murkowski Mick Mulvaney Mike Braun Mitch McConnell Mitt Romney Rand Paul Senate trial Sherrod Brown Susan Collins Ted Cruz Tim Scott
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