Senate Democrats may have lost an early battle with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to call witnesses for the upcoming Senate impeachment trial. But many Dems are refusing to concede the war over bringing in additional evidence into their proceedings, which will decide whether President Trump should be acquitted or removed from office for his Ukraine pressure campaign.
Doing so would require four Republicans to join them in their request, and so far McConnell has maintained total unity among his caucus. However, what the Republican leader has gotten the Senate GOP to agree to so far is a path forward that doesn’t foreclose witnesses entirely.
“I think Leader McConnell plays very close attention to what four members are willing to insist upon in terms of process, witnesses evidence, and I remain hopeful that there are four members who will say, ‘Trials have witnesses, cover-ups don’t,’” Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) told TPM Wednesday.
McConnell announced Tuesday that he had secured the votes to open an impeachment trial without a bipartisan deal on whether to subpoena witnesses or documents withheld from the House’s inquiry. Instead, Senate Republicans have agreed to a path modeled after the 1999 Clinton impeachment, where a decision on witnesses wasn’t hashed out until the trial had proceeded through its beginning stages.
The upshot of McConnell’s proposal is that it allows Republicans — particularly those up for tough re-elections — to punt for now on the question of whether witnesses should be called.
Democrats are nonetheless vowing to make Republicans to take multiple votes on the matter.
“We’re going to put our colleagues on the record,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) told reporters, adding that there would be at least two opportunities — at the beginning of the trial, and after each side presents its case — that GOP lawmakers will have to vote on witnesses.
Compared to how the Senate typically operates, McConnell has far less control in an impeachment trial over what gets voted on by the chamber, meaning he won’t be able to shield his caucus forever, Democrats argued.
“Mitch can’t prevent his members from taking tough votes,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) said. “And there are a lot of Republicans who are quietly quite worried about rejecting the premise that a trial should have witnesses and documents, and so we will continue to make that case both to our colleagues and to the American people.”
The optimism comes as some Democratic senators have grown anxious about the idea that Pelosi will withhold transmission of the articles of impeachment in an effort to secure concessions from the Senate. After Pelosi suggested Tuesday evening she wouldn’t send them over before seeing the Senate rules package, McConnell took a shot at her for trying to “reach into the Senate and dictate our trial proceedings to us.” It’s not clear how the stalemate will end.
“My belief is that the leverage over Republicans exist in votes we take inside the trial, so I think that’s is where is our greatest leverage exists, is inside the trial,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) told reporters. Murphy later added that, while he has no faith that McConnell will come around on witnesses, he was choosing to have “faith that some of [McConnell’s] members would chose to have a fair trial.”
McConnell, meanwhile, warned Democrats in his floor remarks when the time to debate witnesses come, “not all the potential witnesses would be people the Democrats are eager to hear from.” The line appeared to be a reference to the call by some Republicans to bring in Hunter Biden or others in order to litigate the baseless claims Trump has made to justify his demands that Ukraine investigate Joe Biden or alleged Ukraine 2016 election interference.
Not every Senate Democrat shared in their colleagues’ optimism that later votes on witnesses could break in their favor.
“I am not” optimistic, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) said. “I think the enterprise has been tribal and political so far, but perhaps the actual taking of an oath will have an effect.”
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