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McConnell Lays Out Plan For Senate Impeachment Trial Procedure

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has released a plan setting up a swift impeachment trial for President Trump. Democrats object to some key elements.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has released a plan setting up a swift impeachment trial for President Trump. Democrats object to some key elements.

Updated at 6:45 p.m. ET

On the eve of arguments in President Trump's historic impeachment trial, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has revealed his long-awaited resolution setting the initial parameters for how the process will play out.

Democrats are already slamming the the four-page resolution, which they say will place time limits on arguments, and departs heavily from President Clinton's impeachment trial of 1999. The McConnell resolution does have some similarities to the Clinton-era resolution, however.

"We have the votes, once the impeachment trial has begun, to pass a resolution essentially the same, very similar to the 100-to-nothing vote in the Clinton trial, which sets up, as you may recall, what could best be described, as maybe, a Phase One," McConnell told reporters Jan. 7.

McConnell needs at least 51 of the 53 Senate Republicans to support his rules if he wants them to pass. Any Senator can attempt to change the rules by offering an amendment before the vote to approve the measure. Those amendments also need 51 votes, meaning all 47 Democrats need to recruit four Republicans if they hope to change any element of McConnell's plan.

On the process for amendments Tuesday, Democrats say they expect to offer several amendments. The rule would allow two hours of debate on each amendment with each side controlling one hour of debate. Democrats stress that they are not aiming to delay the trial; the amendments will be targeted at calling for witnesses and potentially changing the rules McConnell has proposed.

The trial follows Trump's impeachment last month in the House of Representatives on charges of obstruction of Congress and abuse of power. The White House has laid out a forceful rejection of those charges, and called for an acquittal of the president. At issue in the impeachment is whether Trump sought political favors from his Ukrainian counterpart in exchange for the release of military aid. The White House denies any such link was made.

The McConnell resolution allows the House impeachment managers and president's lawyers to present their opening arguments beginning Wednesday at 1 p.m., and gives them 24 hours each over two days to make their case.

Following those arguments, senators will have 16 hours to ask questions in the chamber, followed by two hours of arguments each by the House impeachment managers and president's lawyers. This would be followed by deliberation on a question on whether to subpoena witnesses or documents. It would also allow an option for a member to bring up a motion to dismiss the case outright.

However, at least one major difference from the Clinton process has caught the eye of Democrats: The resolution cuts short the number of days each side can make arguments in the case. Rather than allow 24 hours of arguments that could extend over three days as was the case for Clinton, McConnell's resolution shortens the number of days to two.

Democrats argue that would leave them arguing their case into the middle of the night and into the next morning, pushing the debate to the "dead of night," a Democratic aide working on the trial said.

Democrats also object to the wording of the section pertaining to votes to call new witnesses before the Senate. The rule includes a new hurdle before votes on witnesses and documents can occur: A majority of senators would have to agree to the concept of allowing witnesses and documents before they could vote on the individual pieces of evidence.

"After reading his resolution, it's clear Senator McConnell is hell-bent on making it much more difficult to get witnesses and documents and intent on rushing the trial through," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement. "On something as important as impeachment, Senator McConnell's resolution is nothing short of a national disgrace."

The decision to limit the testimony to two days per side was based on the amount of time used during the Clinton trial, according to a senior Republican leadership aide. At the time, neither side used the entire 24 hours provided for arguments. That allowed them to wrap up the opening phase of the trial faster than expected.

The shift could potentially frustrate some Republicans who were operating under the expectation that McConnell planned to follow the letter of the 1999 Clinton rules. The alterations may mean senators would be required to sit for testimony for significantly longer than expected, and could invite criticism that McConnell is attempting to rush the process.

Democrats were irked by others parts of the resolution, too.

Schumer argues that the resolution could also prevent the Senate and the American people from learning the full scope of claims against the president. For example, it doesn't admit the House record into evidence at the trial, he said. Schumer said he'll be offering amendments as a result.

"Any senator that votes for the McConnell resolution will be voting to hide information and evidence from the American people," he said.

McConnell's resolution also skips a section of the 1999 rule that automatically allowed House evidence to be included in the Senate proceedings. The proposed rule for the Trump trial does not do that. It only allows that Senators may offer the evidence, meaning all of the findings from the House process could be subject to majority vote, according to senior Democratic aides.

In order for Trump to be removed from office, 20 Republicans must join all 47 Democrats; there is little to no indication that will happen.

Read the resolution here.
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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