WASHINGTON ― The second session of the 116th Congress convened on Friday with no deal on the parameters of President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial and leaders on both sides of the aisle locked in a standoff after a set of dueling speeches on the Senate floor.
“We are no closer to establishing the rules for a Senate trial than when we last met,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Friday.
After last month’s historic vote to impeach Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she would withhold the two articles of impeachment ― abuse of power and obstruction of Congress ― from the Senate until Republicans in the upper chamber agreed to a “fair” process.
Pelosi did not say how long she would hold back the articles, but the move was widely seen as an effort to give Senate Democrats more leverage in negotiations about the rules governing the trial and to pressure a handful of vulnerable Republicans to support calling witnesses.
Democrats are demanding that Republicans agree upfront to hear from witnesses who refused to appear during House committee hearings, including acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and former national security adviser John Bolton. Democrats argue that witnesses with firsthand knowledge about Trump’s decision to block military assistance to Ukraine could provide crucial information, especially with more details coming to light revealing the level of trepidation within the Pentagon about the legality of the president’s order.
On Thursday, the website Just Security published several unredacted email exchanges between Pentagon officials and White House aides detailing Trump’s decision to withhold military aid to Ukraine.
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) continued to resist those demands on Friday, announcing on the floor that the Senate would move to dispense with regular business ― likely confirming more of Trump’s judicial nominations ― until the articles are transmitted to the upper chamber.
The Kentucky Republican also rejected a theory floated by some observers that the Senate could hold a trial and acquit the president even if Pelosi continued to withhold the articles indefinitely.
“We can’t hold a trial without the articles. The Senate’s own rules don’t provide for that,” McConnell said.
McConnell reiterated support for following the framework of the 1999 impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, which punted a decision on calling witnesses until after the initial arguments and senatorial questioning had been completed.
But Schumer called delaying a decision on witness testimony “a poorly disguised trap” because Republicans had already made up their minds about acquitting Trump. If the Senate didn’t guarantee witness testimony, Schumer added, the proceedings will be “little more than a nationally televised meeting of the mock trial club.”
To subpoena their desired witnesses, Democrats will need to convince at least four Republican senators to vote with them. Moderates like Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska will be their top targets, as well as Cory Gardner of Colorado and Martha McSally of Arizona, who, like Collins, are facing tough reelection fights next year. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a frequent critic of Trump who has expressed unease about the Ukraine matter, will also be on the list.
Collins told Maine Public Radio this week that she is “open” to calling witnesses in Trump’s impeachment trial. However, the senator added that it is too early to determine which witnesses should appear and that the Senate ought to decide after opening arguments and initial questioning of both sides, siding with McConnell on the matter.
Rounding up four GOP votes to break with Trump will be a challenging task for Democrats. In recent days, Trump has shifted his position on the process substantially, initially demanding a vigorous defense during a lengthy trial that included witness testimony, then later suggesting the case be dismissed outright. This week, he also accused Democrats of seeking to avoid a trial to protect Joe Biden and his son Hunter, whose service on the board of a Ukrainian energy company while his father was U.S. vice president has come under scrutiny.
“The Democrats will do anything to avoid a trial in the Senate in order to protect Sleepy Joe Biden, and expose the millions and millions of dollars that ‘Where’s’ Hunter, & possibly Joe, were paid by companies and countries for doing NOTHING,” Trump said in his tweet. “Joe wants no part of this mess!”
The approaching Democratic presidential primaries in February may also complicate the timing of the impeachment trial. Two of the top candidates in the race ― Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont ― will be required to serve as jurors in the hypothetical trial, potentially taking them off the campaign trail during some of the proceedings.
“House Democrats upheld their sworn duty and impeached the president. Soon, I will return to the Senate to do mine as well. But unless some Senate Republicans choose truth over politics, Donald Trump will be emboldened to try to cheat his way through another election,” Warren tweeted on Tuesday.
Though Congress officially convened for its second session on Friday, most lawmakers are not expected to return to Washington until Monday. In addition to confirming judges, one GOP senator suggested moving to other businesses until the trial begins, such as ratifying Trump’s trade deal with Canada and Mexico.
This article has been updated with details from Friday.