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Romney shocks GOP with vote to convict

Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyBiden teams to meet with Trump administration agencies Paul Ryan calls for Trump to accept results: 'The election is over' Trump transition order follows chorus of GOP criticism MORE (R-Utah) shocked his fellow Republican senators and surprised much of the nation on Wednesday with a dramatic floor speech announcing he would vote to convict President TrumpDonald John TrumpMinnesota certifies Biden victory Trump tells allies he plans to pardon Michael Flynn: report Republican John James concedes in Michigan Senate race MORE on the impeachment charge of abuse of power.

Romney announced his decision in a nearly empty Senate chamber just hours before the Senate voted to acquit Trump and after fellow GOP colleagues such as Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsTwo more parting shots from Trump aimed squarely at disabled workers Trump transition order follows chorus of GOP criticism The Memo: Trump election loss roils right MORE (Maine) and Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiTrump transition order follows chorus of GOP criticism The Memo: Trump election loss roils right Whoopi Goldberg blasts Republicans not speaking against Trump: 'This is an attempted coup' MORE (Alaska) had already announced they would not vote to convict Trump.

Just as surprising as his vote was the intensity of the 2012 Republican presidential nominee’s language.

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While other Senate Republicans chided Trump for “inappropriate” conduct, Romney said “the president is guilty of an appalling abuse of public trust” and “a flagrant assault on our electoral rights.”

“The grave question the Constitution tasks senators to answer is whether the president committed an act so extreme and egregious that it rises to the level of a ‘high crime and misdemeanor.’ Yes, he did,” he said.

Romney, however, voted against the second article of impeachment accusing the president of obstruction of Congress, which failed along strict party lines.

Senate Republicans along with most of the rest of the political world thought Trump would be acquitted on a straight party-line vote after Collins, who faces a tough reelection race this year in a state carried by Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonIntercept DC bureau chief says Biden picks are 'same people' from Obama years The Hill's 12:30 Report - Third vaccine candidate with 90% efficacy Biden won — so why did Trump's popularity hit its highest point ever? MORE in 2016, said she would vote against conviction.

If anything, it appeared more likely that Democrats would suffer defections.

Instead, Democrats won a key talking point from Romney’s vote, which they will surely use in the weeks and months to come.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellImmigration, executive action top Biden preview of first 100 days Spending deal clears obstacle in shutdown fight McConnell pushed Trump to nominate Barrett on the night of Ginsburg's death: report MORE (R-Ky.) after the vote said he had hoped to replicate the unanimous Republican vote against the articles that GOP leaders mustered in the House.

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He said he was “surprised” and “disappointed” by Romney’s vote, indicating he received little if any advance warning.

Still, he tried to downplay the defection.

“I think they’re pretty clearly party lines both ways. I think that’s what you can take out of it, pretty much party line in both chambers,” he said when asked to assess the final Senate and House votes.

Democrats were elated by Romney’s announcement.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) called his vote “momentous,” while Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetDemocratic senators urge Facebook to take action on anti-Muslim bigotry Hickenlooper ousts Gardner in Colorado, handing Democrats vital pickup Lobbying world MORE (D-Colo.) said it “restores my faith in democracy.”

Republicans were caught off guard, though GOP senators, for the most part, didn’t lace into Romney.

“I am surprised,” said Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyDemocrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks Rush Limbaugh lauds Hawley: 'This guy is the real deal' Trump told advisers he could announce 2024 bid shortly after certification of Biden win: report MORE (R-Mo.), one of the president’s most ardent Senate defenders. Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOcasio-Cortez, Cruz trade jabs over COVID-19 relief: People 'going hungry as you tweet from' vacation McSally, staff asked to break up maskless photo op inside Capitol Capitol's COVID-19 spike could be bad Thanksgiving preview MORE (R-Texas), another staunch Trump ally, said, “I disagree with his decision. I think it’s a mistake.”

In a statement, the White House described Romney as a “failed Republican presidential candidate,” and Donald Trump Jr. called on the Senate GOP to expel Romney from its conference.

The White House press office abruptly canceled a press availability for Trump and Venezuela’s opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, that was scheduled to take place in the Oval Office minutes after Romney announced his decision. It did not offer an explanation for the move, stirring speculation that officials were caught off guard by the news.

A Republican senator who requested anonymity to comment on Romney’s vote said he was “disappointed” but didn’t want to add any fuel to the fire by bashing his colleague.

The person most impacted by Romney’s vote may be Collins, who has been running ads in Maine stressing her brand as an independent.

By breaking with Republicans on what could be the most defining vote of his career, Romney has set a new standard for independence for GOP lawmakers, who have been reluctant to forcefully challenge the president during his first three years in office.

“It puts Sen. Collins in a real bad spot to have someone run in that independent [lane] that she typically does. This is such a tough vote for her,” said a Senate Republican aide.

Collins later told reporters, “Every senator has to make his own decision. I don’t agree with Mitt’s decision.”

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But when asked if Romney should be punished with expulsion from the conference, Collins said, “Of course not.”

Romney said he fully expected to be “denounced” for breaking with his party on such a politically charged vote but that he felt compelled to vote according to his conscience and moral values.

The Utah senator paused for several seconds and looked down at his desk, appearing to choke up with emotion, at the start of his speech, the first sign that he was about to drop a bombshell on the Senate floor.

“I am a profoundly religious person. I take an oath before God as enormously consequential. I knew from the outset that being tasked with judging the president, the leader of my own party, would be the most difficult decision I have ever faced,” he said.

His vote could give momentum for a bill introduced by Utah state Rep. Tim Quinn (R) that would allow voters to recall a U.S. senator with a ballot measure.

A Senate Republican aide, however, dismissed the legislation as an unconstitutional infringement on federal power.

Asked how long Romney would be in the doghouse, McConnell said, “We don’t have any doghouses here. The most important vote is the next vote.”

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Other Republicans flatly rejected the idea of kicking Romney out of the conference or stripping him of his committee assignments.

Sen. Mike BraunMichael BraunMeadows meets with Senate GOP to discuss end-of-year priorities McConnell reelected as Senate GOP leader GOP faces fundraising reckoning as Democrats rake in cash MORE (R-Ind.) waved off talk of expelling Romney from the conference as “silly talk.”

Other Republicans urged tolerance for different points of view.

Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderThe 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 The Memo: Trump election loss roils right MORE (R-Tenn.) said “every senator has a right to vote how he or she feels,” while Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbySpending deal clears obstacle in shutdown fight Trump, Pelosi barrel toward final border wall showdown On The Money: Push for student loan forgiveness puts Biden in tight spot | Trump is wild card as shutdown fears grow | Mnuchin asks Fed to return 5 billion in unspent COVID emergency funds MORE (R-Ala.), one of the Senate’s most senior lawmakers, said “the party ought to be a big umbrella.”

Jordain Carney, Morgan Chalfant and Brett Samuels contributed.