Remember when the Senate could come to a unanimous, bipartisan approach to rules governing an impeachment trial? Good times, good times. In fact, those were such good times that Mitch McConnell wants to bring them back. Rather than keep having his counterpart Chuck Schumer negotiate via MSNBC, the Senate Majority Leader announced that he’ll simply reinstate the rules package that governed Bill Clinton’s impeachment twenty years ago.
By the way, that also includes a dismissal option:
Over the weekend, my colleague the Democratic Leader began asking the Senate to break from precedent, break with the unanimous template from 1999, and begin choreographing the middle of a potential trial before we’ve even heard opening arguments.
In 1999, all 100 senators agreed on a simple pre-trial resolution that set up a briefing, opening arguments, senators’ questions, and a vote on a motion to dismiss. Senators reserved all other questions, such as witnesses, until the trial was underway. That was the unanimous bipartisan precedent from 1999. Put first things first, lay the bipartisan groundwork, and leave mid-trial questions to the middle of the trial.
I have hoped, and still hope, that the Democratic Leader and I can sit down and reproduce that unanimous bipartisan agreement this time. His decision to try to angrily negotiate through the press is unfortunate. But no amount of bluster will change the simple fact that we already have a unanimous… bipartisan… precedent. [emphasis in original]
If 100 senators thought this approach was good enough for President Clinton, it ought to be good enough for President Trump.
It’s a clever move in two ways. First, it leaves open the witness issue for a later negotiation, but more importantly, this allows McConnell to claim the mantle of tradition and non-partisanship. It will be tough for Schumer to object to using rules that every Democrat supported in the previous impeachment trial, not without making it even more clear that House Democrats didn’t produce a case for removal before rushing it to the Senate.
It’s not just Schumer who will be stuck in a vise. Voters will likely see this re-use of previously unanimous rules as a reasonable and fair approach. Any Democrats who vote against this set of rules will have to explain why they suited Bill Clinton’s impeachment but aren’t sufficient for Donald Trump’s. The only substantial difference between them is that Clinton’s impeachment clearly established a statutory crime (perjury), while House Democrats have established nothing of the sort, and are relying solely on hearsay and conjecture for both articles of impeachment.
Furthermore, McConnell’s likely to get at least 51 votes from his own caucus, plus perhaps a couple of Democrats for such a rules package. Mitt Romney made clear yesterday that he was leaving this negotiation to leadership, and he’d likely be loathe to oppose this proposal given its historic continuity. The same goes for Susan Collins, who has to worry about re-election, but the unanimous 1999 vote for adoption will provide plenty of political cover. Joe Manchin will likely come along, and Doug Jones might as well too, although it won’t do him much good in the end.
If Schumer has something else in mind, then he’d better stop grandstanding and start negotiating in good faith. One has to wonder, though, whether this doesn’t suit Schumer’s overall purposes as well — including a quick dismissal rather than getting into a witness fight.