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Senate Republicans puncture House GOP dreams for impeachment trial

On Wednesday, a conservative backbencher in the House issued an explosive request to Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham: Subpoena the phone records of House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff.

On Thursday, Graham had a succinct response: “We’re not going to do that.”

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The demand from Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) reflects House Republicans’ eagerness to see Democrats squirm once impeachment moves to the GOP-controlled Senate and out of the “sham” process they’ve derided in the House.

“I’m talking to my Senate colleagues: here are the witnesses you should call and here are the questions you should ask,” said Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah). “It’s going to cast us in a different very light. This is a chance to tell the other side of the story.”

President Donald Trump has joined in as well, tweeting on Thursday that he wants to call Schiff, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Bidens as witnesses in his impeachment trial.

But Senate Republicans are beginning to deliver a reality check to the president and House Republicans that there are limits to what they can do.

“You got two different bodies here,” Graham, a stalwart Trump ally, told reporters on Thursday. “Are we going to start calling House members over here when we don’t like what they say or do? I don’t think so.”

Senate GOP leaders have signaled they intend to defend Trump wholeheartedly, but they’re also loath to let the upper chamber descend into chaos or divide their caucus ahead of a tough 2020 cycle. And even if Senate Republicans wanted to embrace the hard-line posture of the House, the party’s narrow majority makes that all but impossible under Senate rules.

Calling controversial witnesses will require near lockstep party unity from 51 of the 53 Senate Republicans to make any procedural maneuvers, a tough task given the diverse views in the GOP, according to senators and aides.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has privately urged senators to avoid divisive votes on impeachment motions, and other senators are eager to ensure that the GOP doesn’t lose votes — or control of a trial in their own chamber.

So as carefully as they can, given the political need to stay aligned with Trump, GOP senators are pouring cold water on the idea that they can or will produce a Christmas tree of TrumpWorld demands during a trial that will determine whether Trump’s presidency survives the winter.

“I don’t feel like we necessarily need all of them. … It becomes a big circus of people and they call John Bolton and we call Hunter Biden. OK. We can do that,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.). “Is it needed to be able to make a decision based on the evidence we’re looking at right now?”

“If you get into a long convoluted [process], this thing could drag on for a really long time,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “If both sides get into a bunch of motions about who we bring who [Democrats] bring and we’re having numerous votes on that? I think that’s something, I think, in the end neither side is probably going to be crazy about.”

To establish the ground rules of a Senate trial, McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) will try and hash out a deal over length and other broad parameters. But when talk turns to calling witnesses, those votes seem likely to be intensely divisive, both between Democrats and Republicans and perhaps among Republicans themselves.

Already, it’s clear Republicans have different ideas about how much deference they believe they should give to the president’s witness requests.

“I don’t even know whether there are going to be witnesses. And it seems the witnesses should be relevant to the inquiry,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).

“I would be cautious about limiting the witnesses [Trump] chooses to call. If he’s on trial, he should have the right to call witnesses,” countered Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). “I don’t know how you go to an accused and say, ‘We’re not going to allow you to call certain witnesses.’ That would make the whole process appear unfair.”

Given the tight margins in the Senate, just three defections from a GOP-only effort will probably tank a vote. Most Republicans believe a tie will result in a failed vote, though Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts will preside over the trial and could in theory intervene.

Still, the president will be on friendlier turf when impeachment proceedings move to the Senate. And House Republicans are itching to go on offense after enduring an impeachment inquiry tightly controlled by Democrats.

As Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) was stepping onto a crowded elevator, POLITICO asked him whether he wanted to see Schiff hauled in as a witness in the Senate trial. Before Collins could even respond, several of his Republican colleagues volunteered their own thoughts: “Yes!” they said in unison.

The GOP has zeroed in on calling Schiff and the anonymous whistleblower who first called attention to Trump’s pressure campaign against Ukraine as a way to paint Democrats’ entire probe as politically motivated. In their impeachment report, House Republicans concluded that Trump was right to be skeptical of Ukraine and Hunter Biden’s role on a Ukrainian energy company — a way to justify the president’s push for politically-motivated investigations.

“What the administration wants is the ability to have the American people see what really happened, instead of what Adam Schiff has said had happened,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a top Trump ally.

But in the Senate, the GOP is far more wary of the trial turning into a circus. That could be problematic for senators, vulnerable or otherwise, who want to see serious and thoughtful proceedings before casting a historic vote on whether to remove Trump from office.

“I don’t know of anybody that would want that on either side,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) of a Senate spectacle. “Unless there’s some earthquake that’s unforeseen, the result is a foregone conclusion.”

And voting to bring in Joe Biden, a 2020 presidential candidate who still has colleagues in the Senate, would surely be a spectacle.

The Senate pushback could frustrate House Republicans, who began lamenting weeks ago that their counterparts across the Capitol needed to step up their defense of Trump.

Some House Republicans called on Graham in October to conduct his own impeachment hearings and launch investigations as a way to counter-program the Democratic-led impeachment probe. Graham did end up introducing a disapproval resolution of the impeachment inquiry but has rejected some of their other demands.

“There are members of the House who would like [Graham] to take that to the next level,” said Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), one of Trump’s most vocal defenders in the impeachment fight.

At the same time, however, House Republicans recognize that some of their Senate colleagues might not be comfortable with the kind of scorched-earth defense tactics that they practice in the lower chamber — such as storming a secure facility in the Capitol basement to disrupt closed-door impeachment depositions.

“I do think that’s a big challenge,” Stewart said. “I don’t think there’s a chance in the world they remove him. But it’s a little harder question about whether they would support calling all of these witnesses.”

Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.


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