After hours of excruciating debate, Senate Republicans rammed through a blueprint early Wednesday for President Trump’s impeachment trial without making any commitments to seek new evidence — but the widely expected outcome wasn’t achieved without a key GOP concession.
In a 53-47 vote that fell entirely along party lines, the GOP-controlled chamber approved a resolution introduced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that got the ball rolling on Trump’s historic trial on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress — just the third such proceeding in U.S. history.
Under McConnell’s resolution, the Democratic House impeachment managers will deliver opening arguments Wednesday afternoon, Thursday and Friday before Trump’s attorneys give their rebuttal Friday, Saturday and, if need be, Monday. Senators are then able to submit questions to both sides before a vote on whether to consider the possibility of subpoenaing additional witnesses and records.
“The president’s lawyers will finally receive a level playing field,” McConnell (R-Ky.) said at the outset of the marathon 12-hour proceeding, which wrapped up shortly before 2 a.m. after a whopping 11 Democratic amendments seeking more witnesses and records were killed in party-line votes.
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But before voting began, McConnell unexpectedly edited out some of his resolution’s most controversial language after even members of his own party said he was taking it a step too far.
The first part struck by the usually iron-fisted GOP leader would have crammed opening arguments from both sides into four rushed 12-hour sessions, meaning about half of the momentous proceedings would play out under the cover of night when few people are watching. Now each side will be able to present their case over three eight-hour sessions instead.
The second part McConnell deleted would have required the Senate to vote on whether to admit the House’s voluminous impeachment evidence, as opposed to it being automatically entered into the record, which was the case during President Bill Clinton’s 1999 impeachment trial.
McConnell offered no explanation for his change of heart, but a spokeswoman for Maine Sen. Susan Collins said she and some other moderate Republicans told the majority leader before the vote that his initial proposal was not, as promised, consistent with the format of Clinton’s trial.
McConnell’s uncharacteristic compromise signals he’s not squarely looking to give Trump a rubber-stamp acquittal of charges that he pressured Ukraine’s president for investigations of Joe Biden and other Democratic rivals by holding up $391 million in U.S. military aid and then covered up his misdeeds by stonewalling the House impeachment inquiry.
Still, Tuesday’s proceedings proved that Senate Democrats will face an uphill battle in their quest for records and witnesses that were withheld by the Trump administration during the House probe.
In repeated 53-47 votes, the chamber’s Republicans rejected 10 amendments introduced by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) that sought to tweak McConnell’s resolution so it authorized subpoenas for fresh evidence, including testimony from key outstanding witnesses like former national security adviser John Bolton and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.
Collins made the only GOP defection, voting with Democrats on one Schumer amendment that would have given members more time to respond to motions later Wednesday.
“This resolution will go down as one of the darker moments in Senate history,” Schumer said of McConnell’s plan, “perhaps even the darkest.”
Democrats will have a second crack at pushing for records and witnesses, though, as McConnell’s resolution affirms there will be votes on whether to consider new evidence after opening arguments and the round of questions from senators.
At that point, all eyes will be on Collins and other moderate Republican senators like Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah and Cory Gardner of Colorado, among others.
At least four Republicans ultimately need to break ranks and vote with Democrats to meet the 51-vote threshold needed to call new witnesses or subpoena more records.
During Tuesday’s intense debate, the seven House impeachment managers said the McConnell resolution’s proposed vote on more evidence is too little, too late.
House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the lead impeachment manager spearheading the Democratic case for Trump’s removal from office, grew visibly angry as he tore into the president’s lawyers over their alleged refusal to face the facts.
“When you hear them attack the House managers, what you’re really hearing is, ‘We don’t want to talk about the president’s guilt, we don’t want to talk about the McConnell resolution and how patently unfair it is. We don’t want to talk about how,’ pardon the expression, ‘ass-backwards it is to have a trial and then ask for witnesses,'” Schiff said. “‘And so we’ll attack the House managers because maybe we can distract you for a moment from what’s before you.'”
Trump’s legal team, led by White House counsel Pat Cipollone, responded with at times factually incorrect defenses, including falsely claiming the president wasn’t allowed to participate in the House impeachment proceedings.
“The president has done absolutely nothing wrong,” Cipollone said. “They want to remove President Trump from the ballot. They won’t tell you that, they don’t have guts to say that directly. But it is exactly what they are here to do.”
Trump, who was in Switzerland for an economic forum on the first full day of his impeachment trial, received briefings on the proceedings throughout the day, according to Eric Ueland, the White House legislative affairs director. The president mostly stayed off Twitter during the high-stakes session.
Two-thirds of the Senate ultimately need to vote to convict Trump for him to be removed from office.
The mood among the 100 senators gathered inside the chamber on Tuesday was somber.
Some Democrats appeared deeply concentrated, with New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand seen taking extensive notes throughout the session.
Schumer, meanwhile, shifted around in his seat and occasionally whispered to his aides.
McConnell sat stone-faced by his desk for most of the proceeding, his hands folded in his lap.
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