It didn’t take long after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s announcement of an impeachment investigation into President Donald Trump for the top Republican in the Senate to rally his troops. In mid-October, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell schooled his fellow GOP lawmakers on the mechanics of an impeachment process and the Senate’s role as juror and decisionmaker.
A tutorial on impeachment is the easy part for McConnell, the shrewd political operator who has battled in the Washington trenches for his entire adult life. The more difficult feat for the veteran politico is balancing the Senate’s job of being a serious jury with the Republican objective of acquitting one of their own and limiting the political damage to their vulnerable incumbents.
All of the action at the moment is in the House, where GOP members of Congress are doing their best to act as President Trump’s defence team. If there is one thing the party has made abundantly clear during the first week of public impeachment hearings, it’s that the Republican rank-and-file have no intention of sitting quietly while the boss is accused of abusing the highest office in the land. The House GOP has its gameplan all sorted out: badger the witnesses, call for the unmasking of the whistleblower who started it all, and distance Trump from the actions of his subordinates.
The Senate GOP’s plan is anything but set in stone. McConnell doesn’t have any choice but to hold a trial if impeachment articles are sent over by the House, as they certainly will be. Some senators, like Rand Paul, are prepared to force votes to compel testimony from witnesses like Hunter Biden, whose business dealings in Ukraine have come up for intense scrutiny in conservative circles throughout this ordeal. Others, like Lindsey Graham, could try to file a motion on the first day to dismiss the charges. The more institutionally-minded Republicans in the chamber want to ensure the trial is as free of drama as possible, which means clamping down on roll call votes that put swing-state senators in difficult situations. As dry and boring as the Senate can be, nobody can say for sure new evidence won’t come up during the proceedings.
If an impeachment resolution was handed over to the Senate today, there would be no question about the result: an acquittal along party lines. Given the intense partisan hellhole that is Washington, DC, it’s not a stretch of the imagination to assume that a party-line acquittal will occur, regardless of the evidence presented (a few independent-minded GOP senators like Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski, and Susan Collins may vote their way). Democrats voting one way and Republicans voting another has become standard operating-procedure on pretty much everything besides sanctioning Russia’s Vladimir Putin or naming a post office. Impeachment is unlikely to be an exception.
The question for Senate Republicans is how they want to play it. Do they, for instance, try to speed up the deliberations in order to get the vote over with as soon as possible? Do they slow down the pace and call up Trump-friendly witnesses, making the proceedings less about ‘quid pro quos’ and more about the overreach of the Democratic Party? Does McConnell schedule a trial at a later date to screw around with the 2020 Democratic presidential primary and keep some of the candidates off the trail (two of the top candidates, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, are senators)? The truth is that none of us knows what the Senate GOP’s strategy is yet. It’s likely McConnell and his deputies don’t know either.
Whatever the case, the real action on impeachment will happen in the world’s ‘greatest deliberative body.’ The only question in the American people’s eyes is whether there will be anything ‘great’ or ‘deliberative’ about the process.