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Key Republican senators are sticking with McConnell on an impeachment trial plan — for now

Democrats hoped four GOP senators would back their impeachment trial plan. Right now, that doesn’t seem likely to happen.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) speaks to journalists while walking to the Senate floor on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on January 24, 2019.
The Washington Post via Getty Im
Sean Collins is a news editor with Vox’s politics and policy team. He’s helped cover elections, Congress, and both the Biden and Trump administrations. Previously, Sean was Vox’s weekend editor.

Republican senators that Democrats hoped would join them in their push to include witness testimony in President Donald Trump’s Senate impeachment trial have signaled they have no plans to defect from their party on the issue.

Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate have yet to come to an agreement on the rules for the upcoming trial deciding whether to remove Trump from office over his attempt to pressure Ukraine into investigating his political rivals. But a Monday announcement from former National Security Adviser John Bolton about his willingness to testify at a trial seemed posed to put pressure on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to consider Democrats’ desire for witnesses, in part because Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) said Monday he “would like to be able to hear from John Bolton.”

But that statement alone is not enough. Democrats would need four Republican senators to defect in order to push through rules that would set out witness policy at the beginning of the trial (rather than passing one set of rules for other procedures and deciding whether to call witnesses later). Romney is one who seemed a candidate for such a defection, as were Sens. Lisa Murkowski (AK) and Susan Collins (ME).

Collins and Murkowski made it clear Monday they support McConnell’s vision for how to proceed with the trial: that it mirror the trial of President Bill Clinton.

“The Senate has a unanimous bipartisan precedent for when to handle mid-trial questions such as witnesses — in the middle of the trial,” McConnell said Monday. “That was good enough for President Clinton, so it ought to be good enough for President Trump.”

Collins echoed the majority leader, saying, “I think it’s difficult to decide in isolation [whether witnesses are needed] before we have heard the opening statements, particularly since the president’s attorney chose not to put a case on in the House and Republicans were not allowed to call witnesses in committee.”

Like Romney, Collins said she was interested in hearing from Bolton, but suggested that even if he were called as a witness, his testimony might not happen, saying, “It is always possible that the president would exert executive privilege and try to block that testimony.”

Murkowski made it clear she holds the same position: “I think we need to do what they did the last time they did this,” she said. “And that was to go through a first phase, and then they reassessed after that.”

And Tuesday, Romney took the same stance on the issue: “I think the Clinton impeachment process provides a pathway for witnesses to be heard so I’m comfortable with that process.”

Counting on Romney, Collins, and Murkowski has always had a small chance of success for Democrats

Unlike many other measures in the Senate, impeachment trial rules can be established by a simple majority vote (McConnell has said rules with a tie vote would not be adopted). So should Democrats remain unified, Republicans could only lose three votes (Collins, Murkowski, and Romney, for instance) before a tie vote would become inevitable. Democrats would need to pick up one more vote for their version of the rules to pass (Sen. Lamar Alexander is reportedly the final Republican senator Democrats hope to sway).

Senate Minority Leader Schumer said Sunday on ABC’s This Week, “I hope, pray, and believe there’s a decent chance that four Republicans will join us. If they do, we will have a fair trial.”

But it does not seem there is much chance of this happening.

It is true that Murkowski, Romney, and Collins all refused to back a resolution rebuking the House impeachment inquiry last year. They have all also made comments expressing their concern over President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine and the impeachment process thus far.

Romney, for instance, tweeted in October that the fact Trump wanted Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a political rival, “strains credulity to suggest that it is anything other than politically motivated.”

And Murkowski has said she was “disturbed” by reports McConnell was closely coordinating with the White House on the structure of the impeachment trial.

But these senators have not always voted in a manner consistent with their publicly voiced concerns, particularly on important votes. For instance, Murkowski and Collins were vocal with their questions about Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s fitness for office. However, Collins ultimately voted for him, and Murkowski voted present. The Alaska senator said she wanted to vote against him, but voted present to preserve her party’s supportive vote total; Sen. Steve Daines, who planned to vote for the justice, missed the vote for his daughter’s wedding.

Romney is relatively new to the Senate, but like Collins and Murkowski, his concerns over Trump’s behavior have not made him a leading dissenting vote on Trump administration policy — he votes for the president’s objectives most of the time, including on issues some of his colleagues broke the party line for, like attempting to end US involvement in the war in Yemen.

Relying on the three senators to put pressure on their leader to set witness rules ahead of the trial, then, may not prove to be a viable strategy. With all three in line behind him, McConnell ought to be able to push through rules that align with the Clinton trial once the articles are sent.

Whether the issue of witnesses will be raised — successfully — once the trial is underway is an open question. And one that could depend largely on whether these three lawmakers’ desire to hear from Bolton remains.

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