As the part of the impeachment trial set aside for senators’ questions nears its end, all eyes and ears will turn to the vote on whether witnesses will be deposed and additional documentary evidence subpoenaed. Several media reports suggest Republicans are confident they have the votes to forego further witness testimony, but Democrats need only a simple majority to force the calling of witnesses. Will such a vote exactly reflect the balance of power in the Senate or will there be a crossing of the aisle – and in which direction?
The vote itself will almost certainly take place mid- to late afternoon on Friday, Jan. 31. The Senate will vote, initially, on whether to hear witnesses and then – should there be a majority in favor – members will introduce motions, naming specific individuals from whom they believe the chamber should hear.
Whipping the Votes
Democrats have 45 seats in the Senate but can count on 47 votes, since Independent Sens. Sanders of Vermont and King of Maine caucus with the Democrats. To obtain a simple majority, then, they need the votes of four Republicans. It seems all but certain they have one: The ever-contrarian junior senator from Utah, Mitt Romney. One of the last anti-Trump Republicans on Capitol Hill, Romney, like the late Sen. John McCain, appears determined to thwart the president at every turn – though he is by no means certain to convict Trump when those crucial, final two votes come down.
At a meeting of GOP senators on Jan. 27, Romney made the case for calling as a witness former National Security Advisor John Bolton. A short time later, Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) flayed him on Twitter:
“Sadly, my colleague @SenatorRomney wants to appease the left by calling witnesses who will slander the @realDonaldTrump during their 15 minutes of fame. The circus is over. It’s time to move on!”
According to a report in The Hill, another GOP senator – who wanted to remain anonymous – confided that Loeffler’s exasperation “reflected ‘pent-up frustration’ among Senate Republicans.” It appears the overwhelming majority of Senators in the president’s party are ready to bring the trial to a swift conclusion.
In terms of who else on the Republican side could vote to hear witnesses, there are the usual suspects, of course: Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. At one point, Democrats may have believed Cory Gardner, the junior senator from Colorado, would be a possible Republican vote but Gardner recently disabused them of that notion. Noting that the House investigation included “well over 100 hours of testimony from 17 witnesses,” Gardner said: “I do not believe we need to hear from an 18th witness.”
Martha McSally, another swing-state Republican senator (from Arizona) is also a no on witnesses. “I have heard enough,” she wrote in a Jan. 29 tweet. “It is time to vote.” And, just like that, Democrats who were once confident that they would get their witnesses are all but ready to concede that the battle may be lost. “Is it more likely than not?” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) told reporters Jan. 29. “Probably no. But is it a decent, good chance? Yes.”
Democrat Hopes Fading
Though Schumer might not want to publicly admit it, there is no guarantee that all 47 Democrat senators will vote for witnesses. With just days left until the first Democratic Party primary contest in Iowa, four of them may be weighing the prospect of remaining confined to Washington in an ultimately pointless endeavor against returning to the campaign trail. Then again, it would take guts for a Democrat running for his or her party’s nomination to vote against calling witnesses in Trump’s trial.
One should not necessarily discount the possibility that one or two other Democrats have heard enough and, knowing the all but certain outcome, wish to get it over with or genuinely do not believe Trump’s removal is warranted, given the lasting effect it will have upon the nation and upon D.C. politics.
At this point, Democrats know that, by winning the witness vote, they gain only the chance to further embarrass President Trump while also risking the calling of witnesses from whom they would rather not hear. Unlike the simple majority they need for witnesses, the president’s political foes must gain a two-thirds majority to oust the commander in chief – and nobody considers that even remotely likely.
Read more from Graham J. Noble.