As far as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is concerned, this impeachment trial is going to go as favorably for President Trump as possible. That’s the major takeaway from a series of votes dictating how the Senate will conduct its trial of the sitting president, who’s accused of holding up military aid to Ukraine in exchange for political favors.
One major question going into the impeachment trial was whether Senate Republicans will stay united throughout it. Thus far, they have.
On Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning, senators voted 53-47 along party lines to shoot down several Democratic amendments and advance a set of rules proposed by McConnell that govern the timing and procedure of the trial. Of 11 amendments introduced by Democrats, just one garnered some Republican backing: Sen. Susan Collins was the sole lawmaker to break with her party on a measure that governed the time each side would have to file motions.
The final GOP rules resolution laid out exactly how much time the prosecution and defense will have to levy their arguments, and when lawmakers will consider votes on additional evidence and witnesses. Most significantly, it punted the question about whether to call witnesses until later in the trial, a delay Democrats have long opposed because they’re worried it could mean that witnesses won’t be considered at all.
A crucial bloc of moderate Republicans backed the majority leader’s position on the matter, however, leaving Democrats four votes short of the number they needed to overturn McConnell’s approach. The final resolution — which passed following hours of debate between lawmakers — lays out specifics:
- House impeachment managers and the president’s defense counsel will have a total of 24 hours each to make their opening arguments. This time can be used across a maximum of three days each.
- After the opening arguments conclude, likely later this week or early next week, senators will have 16 hours to ask written questions of both the impeachment managers and the president’s counsel.
- Once this question and answer period is over, senators will hold a vote to consider more evidence. If they vote to do so, they’ll hold another vote specifically about subpoenaing witnesses. Any witnesses that are called by the Senate will have to participate in a deposition first, before a decision is made about their testimony in front of members of the chamber.
The outcome of this vote is a major difference from President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial in 1999; in that trial, the initial rules proposal was passed unanimously by the Senate, while a later vote on witnesses was only approved along party lines.
Now that the rules have been set, the Senate trial is poised to begin in earnest, with opening arguments from the House impeachment managers starting at 1 pm on Wednesday.
The rules resolution was the first test of Republican unity
The fight over the rules ultimately illustrated an important dynamic: the influence that defecting Republicans could have on the impeachment process.
Although many of the Democrats’ critiques were not incorporated in the final version of the rules resolution, there were changes McConnell made to an initial draft in response to Republican concerns.
In the original measure, for example, he required the prosecution and defense to deliver their opening arguments across two days, a time constraint that was widely criticized by Democrats, as well as some Republicans. In the final version, both sides were granted an extra day to deliver these arguments — a sign that the pressure from his conference spurred the leader to consider some tweaks.
As Politico’s Burgess Everett and Marianne LeVine reported, these edits were in response to pushback from GOP lawmakers including Sens. Collins (ME) and Rob Portman (OH).
This tension among Senate Republicans will be one of the most interesting to watch as the trial unfolds: Because of the 51-vote threshold that both parties need to hit to advance anything, moderate senators including Collins, Lisa Murkowski (AK), and Mitt Romney (UT) are poised to play a critical role in shaping the terms of the proceedings.
Since lawmakers have approved the rules for the trial, opening arguments will kick off on Wednesday.
In the coming week, the House impeachment managers and the president’s defense counsel will make their cases, an effort that’s expected to take the Senate through at least this Sunday. They may not wind up using the entirety of the allocated time, though: Fox News’s Chad Pergram has noted that Trump’s counsel may only take one day to complete its arguments.
A rough outline of the schedule is below:
- Wednesday: House impeachment managers have roughly eight hours for opening arguments.
- Thursday: House impeachment managers have roughly eight hours for opening arguments.
- Friday: House impeachment managers have roughly eight hours for opening arguments.
- Saturday: Trump’s defense counsel has roughly eight hours for opening arguments.
- Next week: Defense counsel could continue to build their case on Monday and Tuesday. Senators will also have up to 16 hours to ask questions of both the impeachment managers and Trump’s counsel.
A vote on hearing more evidence isn’t expected until sometime next week, and then the pressure will be on a subset of moderate Republicans and Democrats yet again. That vote will ultimately determine if any additional witnesses will even be considered or if Republicans will be content wrapping up the trial without this testimony.