Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell doesn't have the votes ... yet.
There is a group of Senate Republicans who remain on the fence about whether to vote to consider witnesses or move toward a quick end to the trial. It's not a large group -- the vast majority of the GOP conference is firmly behind the White House -- but it's enough to create serious questions about how this will all end up.
Republicans coming out of a closed-door conference meeting Tuesday appeared confident McConnell would get the votes in place before the vote, but as one told me last night: 'I guess I really have no idea. Seems like we'll be fine. This is kind of where Mitch thrives. But I really just don't know.'
Bottom line: Senate Republicans don't have the votes to block witnesses. Senate Democrats don't have the votes to move to consider witnesses. As the Senate impeachment trial moves into the senator question-and-answer period, the weight of history, precedent and the politics of the moment are all on a handful of Republican senators who will decide how much longer this process will go -- and how fulsome it will be.
The mood in the Republican conference has shifted in a major way in the last 36 hours after the initial jolt of the John Bolton revelations in The New York Times. As one senator told CNN on Tuesday night: 'Things have stabilized.'
As Sen. John Barrasso said, 'The overwhelming consensus is we've heard enough -- and it's time to move to a final judgment,'
The message from several senators was that the feeling inside the closed-door Senate GOP meeting on Tuesday afternoon was that McConnell was on the path to getting the votes -- not that he was in danger of losing the vote. But the votes aren't there until they are there.
McConnell has been crystal clear, both publicly and in several closed door meetings, that he's adamantly opposed to witnesses and documents. His reasoning boils down to this:
- It will prolong a trial that's ending is already known (Trump will be acquitted)
- Along those lines, every day the trial continues is a day the Senate is essentially shuttered to all other business
- Some of the witnesses will create significant executive privilege concerns as it relates to precedent
- There won't be just one witness. If Senators just to move forward, it will open the door to a number of witnesses, which will create a wild and unpredictable period with no clear end game.
That has been his consistent position -- one that was reiterated behind closed doors Tuesday, according to people in the room.
The sense from senators I spoke to is McConnell's arguments will win out. But he's just not there yet.
Here's your quote: 'Bet against McConnell's ability to get his conference in line at your own peril,' one Republican senator told CNN.
Here's your other key quote: 'It feels like we're getting there and if I had to bet, we'll have 51 when the vote comes up,' another GOP senator told CNN. 'But we really don't know right now.'
This matters: CNN reported Tuesday that several endangered or vulnerable 2020 Senate GOPers stood up at a closed-door meeting and made the case to their colleagues that prolonging the trial was problematic for them and their campaigns. The group included Sens. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Cory Gardner of Colorado, Joni Ernst of Iowa and Martha McSally of Arizona.
This is an extremely important pressure point for the undecided senators -- the subtext is essentially that the majority may be at risk if this goes further. And nobody wants to be in the minority come 2021.
Watching the clock
McConnell knows his members better than anyone and that's extremely important. There's a reason, CNN has been told, Trump hasn't taken to Twitter to attack those who are in favor of witnesses, not even Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, or those who are undecided. This is a delicate moment where too much pressure from the wrong party can blow up in the face of GOP leaders. The White House has been informed of this and is giving McConnell space to work, multiple GOP officials told CNN.
Of course that doesn't mean Trump will hold off forever, but it's an important thing to recognize right now.
It cuts both ways: Democrats have continued to ramp up the pressure in favor of witnesses each day, pointing to new revelations and holes in the defense team's arguments defined by who hasn't spoken or documents they haven't received. The message is clear: any trial without witnesses will be viewed as a coverup and a sham by the public, and nobody should want to be associated with that, especially endangered Republicans up for re-election.
As Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer told CNN's Erin Burnett on Tuesday night: 'There are 10 to 12 Republicans who have never said a bad word about witnesses or documents, who know in their hearts it's the right thing to do.
But it's a delicate matter for Democrats as well.
One of McConnell's most effective arguments, GOP senators have told me, is that the witness vote and prolonging the trial is purely a play by Schumer to put Republicans up for reelection in a bad spot. When, and if, this is viewed by the undecided senators as a purely political play by Democrats, McConnell is likely to win the day. But, obviously, he isn't there yet.
How the next two days will work
- The Senate is now in the 16-hour question-and-answer period.
- McConnell announced the chamber will consider eight hours of questions per day, over two days.
- The questions will alternate between Republicans and Democrats and must be directed to either the House managers or White House defense counsel
- Questions must be submitted to Chief Justice John Roberts, who will read them aloud to the chamber. Senators themselves cannot speak.
- Multiple senators can join together (even across party lines) to ask a question, but senators cannot challenge or respond to the answers given by the managers or counsel.
Worth noting: This is a very important period of this trial. When you look at what has kept the uncommitted GOP senators from making up their minds, it's this period where they may get the answers they are looking for.
In other words, don't skip over these next 16 hours and only focus on witness vote. The witness vote will likely be determined by how the next two days on the floor transpire. For some (not all) who haven't made up their minds, there are specific questions they want answers to, and those answers will play a large role in determining where they end up.
What will be asked?
The rough expectation is there will be about 20-25 questions asked in total over two days, senators tell CNN. Senators in both parties submitted their questions to leaders over the last two days, in order to both streamline them and structure them in the way leadership thinks best makes their case.
Senators in both parties say a large majority of the questions will be designed to have their side flesh out specific issues that better make their case.
Democrats plan to ask the House managers to respond to the defense counsel's Vice President Biden presentation in an effort to rebut it in full.
Republicans will ask the White House defense much the same, in an effort to expand on it.
Democrats will tee up several questions underscoring the importance of witnesses and documents to a fair trial.
Republicans will tee up questions that underscore their view the trial needs to come to an end soon.
John Bolton will be brought up in questions from both sides, CNN has been told.
This isn't rocket science, but if the question comes from, say, Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, or Rob Portman of Ohio, it's time to pay really close attention.
When is the vote to proceed to witnesses?
McConnell told his conference behind closed doors the witness vote will occur Friday.
When is the final vote:?
One day at a time at this point. Nobody knows -- not even McConnell. It could be as early as Friday night. It could be Saturday. It could be next week. It could be weeks from now. It is all contingent on how the Friday vote goes.
- The President's Super Bowl interview is on Sunday.
- The Iowa Caucuses are on Monday.
- The State of the Union is on Tuesday.
The vote breakdown
The vote count, to the extent we know it, hasn't changed. The exact universe of who stands where in the GOP conference is known by exactly one person: McConnell.
But this is what we do know:
Strong lean to 'yes'
- Sen. Susan Collins of Maine
- Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah
Soft lean to 'yes'
- Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska
- Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee
- Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio
- Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania
- Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana
- Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas
Of note, Toomey and Cassidy are on the list because they've raised the issue of witnesses In private meetings, but both have signaled on Wednesday they aren't necessarily in play as 'yes' votes. There also may be one or two who we haven't been paying attention to who may be in this group -- that's often the case. But the universe of undecided is actually quite small in the GOP conference. There is now tremendous pressure on them from all sides to make up their minds.