Republicans set to shut down Democrats’ witness demands

In a dramatic, eleventh-hour move, Sen. Lamar Alexander announced he will vote against a motion to call witnesses in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial. And it nearly ends any hope that the Senate will consider new evidence before acquitting Trump as soon as Friday evening.

Republicans may even avoid the uncomfortable scenario of a tie vote on witnesses that puts a potential spotlight on Chief Justice John Roberts. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she would support hearing from witnesses and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) will join her and the 47 Senate Democratic Caucus members. But Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is still on the fence and will ultimately decide whether the vote ends in a tie or there is a simple majority against witnesses.

GOP leaders were pleased Thursday night, as the end of Trump’s trial came into view.

“Tomorrow’s a big day,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as he left the Capitol.

After Thursday’s marathon question-and-answer period ended, Alexander (R-Tenn.) released a lengthy statement justifying his decision. He acknowledged Trump’s behavior was “inappropriate” but said that the question of his fitness for office should be judged by the voters and not the Senate: “Let the people decide.”

“There is no need for more evidence to prove something that has already been proven and that does not meet the United States Constitution’s high bar for an impeachable offense,” Alexander, a key swing vote, said Thursday night. “But the Constitution does not give the Senate the power to remove the president from office and ban him from this year’s ballot simply for actions that are inappropriate.”

Alexander also took a shot at “this shallow, hurried and wholly partisan impeachment” developed by Democrats. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) also joined Alexander in coming out in opposition to witnesses Thursday, effectively leaving Democrats’ best hopes for a tie vote during the witness question on Friday afternoon. But that’s unlikely to give them what they want unless Roberts makes a surprising decision to wade into an explosive situation and break a tie.

“I’m gonna go back to my office, put some eye drops in so that I can keep reading,” Murkowski said. She wouldn’t say how she was leaning on the witness question and submitted questions that could be interpreted either way.

Though few expect him to support seeking witnesses, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) declined to comment on how he will vote: “We’ll see.” Other Republicans like Cory Gardner of Colorado, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Martha McSally have come out in opposition to hearing more evidence in the past few days.

With a growing sense they’ll win the witness vote on Friday afternoon, GOP leadership is considering the endgame of the trial and strategizing how to conclude things quickly.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) isn’t going to just roll over and allow a quick acquittal of Trump, but Republicans say they will move to a final vote on a verdict as soon as they can.

“My hope would be that if we do win tomorrow, that we will quickly close it out. I don’t think there’s any point in hanging around. I would like to go to a conclusion, Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said in an interview. “I can tell you there are a lot of our members … who, if we can prevail on witnesses, want to just move to the final question as quickly as possible and conclude this.”

Republicans still need to figure out what the appetite is in their own conference for finishing things late Friday or early Saturday, or whether GOP senators will want more time to deliberate over Trump’s fate. While Trump is certain to be acquitted, some Republicans are still weighing the evidence against him. Senate leaders of both parties could also meet to decide how to conclude the trial.

Alexander and Murkowski hinted at their positions all day and even met privately on Thursday evening. Alexander, joined by Republican Sens. Steve Daines of Montana and Ted Cruz of Texas, pressed House impeachment managers to explain how much bipartisanship factored into the Trump, Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon impeachment proceedings.

Murkowski signaled she could be open to witnesses Thursday when she asked why the Senate should not call in former national security adviser John Bolton. She noted the “dispute about material facts weighs in favor of calling additional witnesses with direct knowledge.” But she, along with Alexander, also joined a question from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asking whether testimony from Bolton would add anything to the case, given the assumption that the allegations against Trump are not impeachable.

Meanwhile behind closed-doors, few Republicans have advocated for witnesses.

“It’s not like there are many people going into conference making a hard pitch for it. And nobody’s tried to convince anybody that we should vote for it,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) on Thursday evening. Romney, however, did say he’d made his case behind closed doors.

Democrats are beginning to discuss a backup plan: forcing more tough votes before acquittal.

Those options could range from proposals for a closed-door session to having more time to deliberate before delivering a verdict. No final decisions have been made by the party on how to handle the possibility that 51 GOP senators try to move the trial to a quick end. There’s also the matter of whether it’s worth keeping the four Democratic senators running for president in town through the weekend.

“Certainly we’re going to call attention to this rushed cover-up. And anything we can do to put our Republican colleagues on record points responsibility where it belongs. They’re the ones who are opposing witnesses and documents,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).

Privately, several Democrats say they do not know how Friday will proceed or what tactics Schumer will employ.

The witness vote will occur as late as 5 p.m. Friday if the White House defense team and the House impeachment managers use all their debate time, though Hawley said he didn’t expect the defense to use all of its time. Then, if Democrats can force more votes on motions, more debate would be warranted.

That sort of procedural battle could make for an ugly Friday session that bleeds into the weekend, and the precise next steps are unclear. Senators could vote to adjourn and regroup on Saturday. The Senate could go into closed-door deliberations. Or McConnell could power through and end Trump’s trial in far speedier fashion than Clinton’s trial.

“Anything could happen timing-wise,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a top McConnell deputy. “But things here almost always take longer than you think they’re going to take, so we’ll see.”

Sarah Ferris and Darren Samuelsohn contributed to this report.

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