WASHINGTON — Congress opened the new year with the Senate deadlocked over President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, leaving the proceedings in flux as Republicans refuse to bend to Democrats’ demands for new witnesses.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., showed no signs Friday of negotiating with the Democrats as he aims for Trump’s swift acquittal.
At the same time, the Republican leader said the Senate cannot begin the undertaking until House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., delivers the articles of impeachment — which she said she is refusing to do until he provides details on the trial’s scope. Neither seems willing to budge.
“Their turn is over,” McConnell said about the Democrat-led House. “It’s the Senate’s turn now to render sober judgment as the framers intended.”
Pelosi responded that McConnell’s stance “made clear that he will feebly comply with President Trump’s cover-up of his abuses of power and be an accomplice to that cover-up.”
Trump was impeached last month by House Democrats on charges that he abused his power and obstructed Congress in his dealings with Ukraine. The president delayed nearly $400 million in military aid for Ukraine, an Eastern European ally that depends on U.S. support to counter Russia, and asked President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to publicly announce an investigation into former vice president Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. The aid was ultimately released and no investigation was conducted.
Democrats believe their demands for witnesses are bolstered by new reports about Trump’s decision to withhold the aid and unease among some GOP senators over the situation.
“The American people deserve the truth,” Pelosi said in a statement. “Every Senator now faces a choice: to be loyal to the President or the Constitution.”
McConnell has said the trial should start and then senators can decide the scope. Acquittal seems likely in the Senate because Republicans hold a 53-47-seat majority and it takes two thirds of the Senate to convict. But McConnell’s leverage is limited during a trial. Either side needs to reach just a 51-vote threshold to call witnesses or seek documents, which could politically test some senators.
As he opened the chamber Friday, McConnell criticized House Democrats as having engineered a “slapdash” impeachment that was the “most rushed, least fair” in history, only to now forcibly postpone the proceedings while they seek more information.
The GOP leader did not defend or criticize the president’s actions toward Ukraine. But he invoked the Founding Fathers’ vision of the slower-moving Senate as “an institution that could stop momentary hysteria and partisan passions.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer also drew on the founders, but to pressure Republican senators to fulfill their role as jurors.
“The vital question, of whether or not we have a fair trial, ultimately rests with a majority of the senators in this chamber,’’ Schumer said. He is pressing to hear testimony from at least four new witnesses, all of whom refused to appear in the House proceedings before Democrats voted to impeach Trump last month.
“We need the whole truth,” Schumer said. McConnell, he said, has been unable to make “one single argument” against having witnesses and documents in the trial.
Two Republican senators, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, have indicated they were open to hearing from more witnesses and registered their concerns about McConnell’s claim that he was working closely with the White House on the format for the trial.
Senators up for reelection in 2020 will face particular pressure over their votes.
Trump wants not only acquittal in the trial but also vindication.
The witnesses that Senate Democrats want to call refused to testify in the House proceedings under orders from the White House. They are Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and two other officials who were directly involved with Trump’s decision to withhold the military assistance for Ukraine. Republicans, in turn, could try to hear from the Bidens. Hunter Biden was on the board of an energy company in Ukraine while his father was vice president.
More information keeps flowing. A federal judge on Friday allowed a Rudy Giuliani associate indicted on campaign finance charges, Lev Parnas, to turn over documents to Congress as part of the impeachment proceeding. Parnas and another man, Igor Fruman, played key roles in efforts by Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer and a former mayor of New York City, to get a Ukrainian corruption investigation of the Bidens launched.
McConnell showed no signs of deviating from his opening stance. He defended earlier remarks in which he said he would not be an ‘’impartial juror” in the trial and stuck with his plan to follow the process used during President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, in which the trial was convened and then votes were taken to decide if additional witnesses were needed.
The GOP leader suggested that the Senate will carry on with its other business while it waits for House Democrats to act. As if to emphasize that point, he set up a vote for Monday to advance a Trump nominee to run the Small Business Administration.