Did Mitch McConnell hint at a quick disposal of any impeachment articles presented by the House? Talking to CNBC this morning, the Senate Majority Leader again reminded the hosts that Senate rules require the upper chamber to start a trial if the House impeaches a federal officeholder, and that it would take 67 votes to change those rules. McConnell doesn’t plan to challenge the rule, but he says that the trial might not last too long if and when one starts:
The Senate would have to take up impeachment of President Donald Trump if the House effectively votes to charge the president, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Monday.
“I would have no choice but to take it up,” the Kentucky Republican told CNBC. “How long you are on it is a different matter, but I would have no choice but to take it up based on a Senate rule on impeachment.” …
If the House impeaches, the Republican-held Senate would then hold a trial on whether to convict Trump and remove him from office. Despite the current lack of support for the inquiry among Senate Republicans, McConnell said the chamber by rule would have no choice but to follow through with the process.
“How long you are on it is a different matter,” McConnell says as an aside, which the CNBC panel doesn’t notice. CNN’s Manu Raju did, however, and he speculates that McConnell would simply move to dismiss after following the letter of the rules in starting the trial:
McConnell added that it would require 67 votes to change Senate rules to prevent a trial from taking place – so the rule change won’t happen. But he can move to dismiss after the trial begins. “How long I’m on it is another matter,” he said of a trial
— Manu Raju (@mkraju) September 30, 2019
The most recent version of the Senate rules on impeachment indeed require that a trial commence; it does not even provide for a vote on the subject. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court then becomes the presiding officer and rules on all motions presented at the trial, unless a member of the Senate moves to hold a vote on it or the presiding officer asks for the Senate to resolve it themselves. Under Rule VII, that becomes a non-debatable motion on the floor with an immediate final vote:
Presumably, a motion to dismiss would be in order at any point once the trial began. If Chief Justice John Roberts ruled against it or ruled it out of order, Rule VII allows any member of the Senate to call for a vote on the motion, which Roberts must grant. At that point, the normal rules of the Senate come into play — except that there can be no debate before the vote. Without debate, there is no filibuster or cloture, which means a dismissal motion would rise or fall on a simple majority.
If Republicans move to dismiss, they could incur some political risk in shutting down a trial before it plays all the way out. By that time, everyone will see what the House puts into the articles of impeachment and can judge whether it rises to the level of removal, and so far Ukraine-Gate seems to fall far short of that mark. Short-circuiting a trial could erode the credibility of the final vote, which is almost certain to be an acquittal on a party-line vote, but McConnell might still get one or two Senate Democrats willing to say Trump’s bad but that impeachment and removal was unwarranted. A dismissal would probably preclude that possibility and open up charges that Republicans cooked the process to protect Trump — even though a dismissal motion is a legitimate procedure in a trial. That’s no small consideration just months before Senate Republicans head into an election cycle where they have to defend a lot more seats than Democrats do.
Nevertheless, it’s an option in McConnell’s pocket, and his offhand remark here suggests he’s taking that option seriously. If anyone can play it for political benefit, it’s Cocaine Mitch.