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After Pressure, McConnell Makes Last-Minute Changes To Impeachment Trial Procedure

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

Updated Jan. 21 at 2:26 p.m. ET

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made last-minute, handwritten changes Tuesday to the parameters for how President Trump's impeachment trial process will play out. Departing from a draft resolution he released Monday night, the resolution now allows impeachment managers and the president's defense to have 24 hours to make arguments over three session days. The draft had stipulated 24 hours over two days. McConnell also altered the rules for admitting the House evidence into the record.

The Senate is debating the resolution Tuesday. The majority leader made the changes after meeting with his colleagues.

Read the resolution here.

Democrats had slammed McConnell's draft 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.

A spokesperson for Republican Sen. Susan Collins said she and others had "raised concerns about the 24 hours of opening statements in two days and the admission of the House transcript in the record. Her position has been that the trial should follow the Clinton model as much as possible. She thinks these changes are a significant improvement."

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.

"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 1," McConnell told reporters Jan. 7.

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 new McConnell resolution allows the House impeachment managersand president's lawyers to present their opening arguments beginning Wednesday at 1 p.m. and gives them 24 hours each over three days to make their case. Though the draft resolution only allowed for two days, the change brings the Trump impeachment trial more in line with the rules of the Clinton impeachment. Late Monday, the White House announced that eight House Republicans would join the president's defense team: Reps. Doug Collins, Mike Johnson, Jim Jordan, Debbie Lesko, Mark Meadows, John Ratcliffe, Elise Stefanik and Lee Zeldin.

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 the president's lawyers. This would be followed by deliberation on a question of whether to subpoena witnesses or documents.

It would also allow an option for a motion to dismiss the case outright immediately after the resolution is adopted, a senior Republican leadership aide said. It's unlikely, however, that such a motion would have the Republican votes needed to pass it.

After the draft was released Monday, Democrats had argued 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 objected 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.


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

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., 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. McConnell also changed that in the final version — House evidence will now be allowed unless there is an objection.

McConnell's draft resolution had only allowed 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.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.
Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.