Two closely watched Republicans announced a split decision late Thursday night on calling witnesses in President Trump’s impeachment trial, placing GOP leaders on the precipice of cutting off the proceedings and moving quickly to acquit the president.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who faces a tough reelection bid, announced she wants to hear more testimony.
The rapid-fire announcements from Alexander and Collins came ahead of Friday’s vote on witnesses and the likelihood Democrats fall short in forcing the issue. Trump stonewalled the House probe, denying witnesses and evidence.
“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 said in a statement, arguing that “there is no need for more evidence to prove something that has already been proven.”
He added that “our founding documents provide for duly elected presidents who serve with ‘the consent of the governed,’ not at the pleasure of the United States Congress. Let the people decide.”
The retiring Tennessee Republican and close ally of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was one of four GOP senators, including Collins, who expressed a willingness to subpoena individuals such as former national security adviser John Bolton to testify about Trump’s actions toward Ukraine. Absent his support — and barring any major surprises — McConnell is believed to have the votes to defeat the Democratic effort to extend the trial and summon additional testimony.
Democrats need four Republicans to advance to witnesses.
However, uncertainty remains surrounding what could happen if there is a 50-50 tie on the motion to hear more evidence, a vote that will occur Friday evening. Republicans have been warily eyeing Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., hoping he would not weigh in to break a tie if three GOP senators side with Democrats on the effort.
The scenario appeared entirely possible Thursday night. Republicans expect Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah) to join Collins and they are closely watching Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), who pushed through a swarm of reporters around 11 p.m. Thursday, vowing to return to her office, “put some eye drops in” and “keep reading” to make a decision.
Collins, who indicated earlier this week that she was likely to back witnesses, has said since December that she wants to follow the “Clinton model” for impeachment, which included a phase to question witnesses in closed-door depositions. Throughout the trial she has refused to comment on Trump’s behavior or the charges leveled against him, explaining to reporters that as an independent juror she must stay silent until the end.
“I believe hearing from certain witnesses would give each side the opportunity to more fully and fairly make their case, resolve any ambiguities, and provide additional clarity. Therefore, I will vote in support of the motion to allow witnesses and documents to be subpoenaed,” she said in a statement.
The four-term senator faces one of her toughest reelection bids this year following criticism over her votes for Trump’s tax bill and to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. Christine Blasey Ford, in an account first reported by The Washington Post, said that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her while they were high school students in the 1980s. Kavanaugh strenuously denied Ford’s claim, calling it an “orchestrated political hit.”
However, Collins, who brands herself as an independent and has bucked her leadership before, also has been praised by Democrats for voting with Murkowski and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2017 against a GOP effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. She also backs abortion rights and has been a proponent of gay rights.
Collins faces a formidable challenger in her bid for another term in a state Hillary Clinton carried by three points in 2016 and Barack Obama carried by about 15 points four years earlier. Sara Gideon, the speaker of Maine’s legislature, announced a bid last June with a video that called into question Collins’s carefully tended moderate image.
In recent weeks, Democrats have tried to use impeachment against Collins. On the first day of opening arguments, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee launched a website that suggested Collins, who backed witnesses during the 1999 Clinton impeachment trial, would refuse to allow them for Trump.
Alexander, meanwhile, has sought to build a reputation as a dealmaker in his more than 15 years serving in the Senate. He stepped down from a leadership position in 2011 to focus his energy on more bipartisan projects. And as chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, he has worked across the aisle on health care and other issues.
Democrats have also eyed him as a potential ally on the witness issue due to his chilly relationship with Trump. He didn’t endorse Trump and has never fashioned himself as a supporter.
While Alexander appeared to accept House Democrats’ allegations that Trump tried to strong-arm Ukraine into doing his bidding with an investigation of a political adversary, Alexander said the public should decide how to handle it.