Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced Tuesday that he has the votes for his rules proposal to begin the Senate impeachment trial without calling witnesses, the news coming a day after key moderate members signaled that they were staying aligned with his plan.
His plan would leave the question of calling witnesses or obtaining documents until after the opening statements of the trial.
“All we’re doing here is saying we’re going to get started in exactly the same way that 100 senators agreed to 20 years ago,” McConnell told reporters on Tuesday. “We’ll get around to the discussion of witnesses like we did after round one 20 years ago.”
“I’m sure there will be intense discussion about the witness issue,” he added.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) took the microphone minutes after, decrying McConnell’s plan and targeting moderate Republican senators.
“Many of [McConnell’s] colleagues are very very worried about going home and saying that they are not for witnesses and documents,” Schumer said. “That is why Leader McConnell came up with this kick the can down the road theory.”
“They can run but they can’t hide,” he added. “There will be votes on the four witnesses we have have asked for,” he said, intoning that the “eyes of America” are on his Republican colleagues.
On Monday, former National Security Adviser John Bolton’s announcement that he would be willing to testify if subpoenaed put renewed scrutiny on the Republican senators traditionally most likely to buck the party.
But they stuck by McConnell’s side.
“I believe that the Senate should follow the precedent that was established in the trial of President Clinton, where we had three stages,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) told reporters on Monday. “First, we heard opening statements from both sides, then senators submitted our own questions through the chief justice. And then, we took up the issue of witnesses.”
Sens. Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) also approved of McConnell’s plan, though Romney said he wanted to hear from Bolton at that later stage.
Some Republicans, like Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), are hewing to the McConnell talking point that it’s not the Senate’s job to call witnesses the House didn’t pursue. The House never subpoenaed Bolton, choosing to focus on witnesses willing to speak out while lumping in the rest with the White House obstruction argument.
Bolton concluded Monday that after his plan to wait for a judge’s decision fell through, he “had to resolve the serious competing issues as best I could, based on careful consideration and study” and decided that he would testify if called.
Democrats would need four Republicans to defect to alter the trial structure and call witnesses to the floor. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) told McConnell in late December that along with Bolton, he wants to hear from acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Mulvaney adviser Robert Blair and Office of Management and Budget official Michael Duffey.