The wit­nesses is­sue:

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY SE­UNG MIN KIM, ELISE VIEBECK AND ROBERT COSTA se­[email protected]­post.com [email protected]­post.com [email protected]­post.com

Pre­trial fo­cus turns to pos­si­ble swing sen­a­tors.

The impeachmen­t trial of Pres­i­dent Trump, ex­pected to open in the Se­nate on Thurs­day, is shin­ing an in­tense spot­light on a hand­ful of Se­nate Repub­li­cans who hold the power to de­cide a key ques­tion: whether to call wit­nesses.

On one end, a group of in­flu­en­tial swing GOP sen­a­tors — Sens. Su­san Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Rom­ney of Utah and La­mar Alexan­der of Ten­nessee — are push­ing to hold a vote on whether to call wit­nesses later in the pro­ceed­ings. Democrats have vowed to ex­ert pres­sure on the group to break with their party on wit­nesses and other is­sues, such as ob­tain­ing doc­u­ments.

At the same time, the Se­nate’s right flank is in­creas­ingly making the case to Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch Mccon­nell (Ky.) and other GOP lead­ers for a more ag­gres­sive pos­ture in de­fense of Trump. In a pri­vate meet­ing with Mccon­nell on Tues­day, Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) ar­gued that if Democrats press the case for po­ten­tially dam­ag­ing wit­nesses — such as for­mer na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser John Bolton — the GOP should in­sist on in­cen­di­ary wit­nesses of their own, such as Hunter Bi­den, the for­mer vice pres­i­dent’s son, ac­cord­ing to two GOP of­fi­cials fa­mil­iar with the dis­cus­sion.

In the meet­ing, which was also at­tended by Sens. John Cornyn (Tex.), Mike Lee (Utah) and Lind­sey O. Gra­ham (S.C.), Mccon­nell ap­peared re­cep­tive to Cruz’s pitch, ac­cord­ing to the of­fi­cials, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss a pri­vate meet­ing. The dis­cus­sions were first re­ported by Politico.

Mccon­nell was re­cep­tive to the idea since it could en­able the GOP to frame their po­si­tion as be­ing both sup­port­ive of the pres­i­dent and open to wit­nesses, one of the of­fi­cials said. Cruz then talked up the idea at a broader lunch of all GOP sen­a­tors, the of­fi­cials said, and re­ceived en­cour­age­ment.

The push by Cruz — and Mccon­nell’s will­ing­ness to em­brace an ag­gres­sive pos­ture just days be­fore the trial is set to be­gin in earnest — shows how Se­nate Repub­li­cans are work­ing to bal­ance the party’s mod­er­ate wing, which has worked in re­cent weeks to shape GOP dis­cus­sions over the trial, with its vo­cal con­ser­va­tive fac­tion.

Cruz has long said Trump should be able to get the kind of wit­nesses he wants in a trial, while Democrats have balked at the prospect of hav­ing the Bi­dens or other Gop-sought wit­nesses tes­tify, ar­gu­ing that do­ing so would al­low Trump to di­vert at­ten­tion away from his own al­leged wrong­do­ing. Trump pre­vented peo­ple with first­hand knowl­edge of tes­ti­fy­ing dur­ing the impeachmen­t in­quiry in the House.

“Peo­ple can ex­press their own view if they’d like,” Rom­ney said Tues­day. “I in­tend to be as im­par­tial as the oath re­quires.”

De­spite their role as po­ten­tial swing GOP votes in a nar­rowly di­vided Se­nate, the group of mod­er­ates has yet to de­fect in any sig­nif­i­cant fash­ion from party lead­ers, who in turn have been will­ing to ac­com­mo­date the group’s re­quests as Repub­li­cans fi­nal­ize a mea­sure that will set the pa­ram­e­ters of the trial.

In a nod to the mod­er­ates, there is ex­pected to be a pro­vi­sion guar­an­tee­ing a vote on whether the Se­nate could con­sider sub­poe­naing wit­nesses, ac­cord­ing to two GOP of­fi­cials fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause the res­o­lu­tion has not been made pub­lic. Collins had in­di­cated last week that she wanted to en­sure sen­a­tors will get to vote on the abil­ity to call wit­nesses.

Mccon­nell said Tues­day that both par­ties would get a say on wit­nesses, telling reporters: “I can’t imag­ine that only the wit­nesses that our Demo­cratic col­leagues would want to call would be called.”

GOP lead­ers are con­fi­dent that once vot­ing begins to set the scope of the trial — called an or­ga­niz­ing res­o­lu­tion — that no Repub­li­cans will de­fect, with the mod­er­ates pla­cated by a guar­an­teed de­ci­sion on wit­nesses later.

That cal­cu­lus could change once the Se­nate goes through the grind of open­ing ar­gu­ments and a litany of ques­tions, and if key GOP sen­a­tors be­come dis­sat­is­fied that they hadn’t got­ten enough in­for­ma­tion from the trial pro­ceed­ings. Though the likes of Rom­ney, Collins, Murkowski and Alexan­der have been the most closely watched, other en­dan­gered Repub­li­cans on the bal­lot this year — such as Sens. Cory Gard­ner (Colo.) and Martha Mcsally (Ariz.) — are also be­ing scru­ti­nized.

For weeks, Democrats have pushed for four cur­rent and for­mer ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials to tes­tify, in­clud­ing Bolton and act­ing White House chief of staff Mick Mul­vaney. Bolton, who could shed more light on whether Trump with­held mil­i­tary aid and a White House visit from Ukraine to force its pres­i­dent to in­ves­ti­gate his po­lit­i­cal ri­vals, said last week that he would be will­ing to tes­tify be­fore the Se­nate if sub­poe­naed.

Rom­ney said this week that he pre­sumes he will vote in fa­vor of hear­ing from Bolton, although he added that his view could change de­pend­ing on what he hears from the trial. He also said Tues­day that he doesn’t “plan to put a list to­gether” of de­sired wit­nesses. Last week, Murkowski said she would be “cu­ri­ous” as to what Bolton would have to say, but she had not made a com­mit­ment on whether she wants to hear from the for­mer White House of­fi­cial.

“I won’t know un­til we get there,” Murkowski said this week. “I need to hear first from both sides. I’ ll only be able to for­mu­late my ques­tions [while lis­ten­ing] to the ques­tions and re­sponses from mem­bers. We’ll all have the op­por­tu­nity to weigh in. That’s what we’re try­ing to do is make sure that we all have a guar­an­teed op­por­tu­nity [to weigh in].”

Oth­ers, like Collins and Alexan­der, have de­clined to spec­ify which wit­nesses, if any, they would like to hear from and prob­a­bly will not un­til af­ter the first phase of the trial is over.

“We have a con­sti­tu­tional re­spon­si­bil­ity here. Just be­cause the House was a cir­cus doesn’t mean the Se­nate needs to be,” Alexan­der said Tues­day. “So we should hear the case, not dis­miss it. We should hear the ar­gu­ments, we should ask our ques­tions, and then we should vote on whether we need ad­di­tional ev­i­dence. And I think that’s a fair and im­par­tial way to go about it.”

White House leg­isla­tive af­fairs di­rec­tor Eric Ue­land on Tues­day de­clined to say whether the ad­min­is­tra­tion was pay­ing any spe­cial at­ten­tion to the re­quests of the four sen­a­tors and other po­ten­tial swing votes, sug­gest­ing that of­fi­cials were watch­ing all Repub­li­cans as the trial pro­gresses.

“We are very cog­nizant of all 53 mem­bers and their pri­or­i­ties, needs, ob­jec­tives,” he said. “And we are con­tin­u­ing to en­gage in ro­bust work and ro­bust con­ver­sa­tions and part­ner­ship with a lot of Se­nate and House GOP mem­bers up here, as we have for the last sev­eral months.”

Collins, who is up for re­elec­tion this year, is poised to join three other Repub­li­cans in vot­ing for a res­o­lu­tion curb­ing Trump’s mil­i­tary author­ity in Iran.

The impeachmen­t trial is also rem­i­nis­cent of other high-stakes votes in which Collins and Murkowski, in par­tic­u­lar, have wielded con­sid­er­able power.

In fall 2018, Collins and Murkowski were the fi­nal un­de­cided swing votes dur­ing the con­fir­ma­tion bat­tle over then-supreme Court nom­i­nee Brett M. Ka­vanaugh, who was ac­cused of sex­ual mis­con­duct dur­ing his teenage and young adult years. (He de­nied the al­le­ga­tions.) Collins ul­ti­mately fell in line, while Murkowski — in a dramatic 11thhour an­nounce­ment — said she could not sup­port the nom­i­nee.

Ka­vanaugh was con­firmed on a near party-line vote of 50 to 48 on Oct. 6. That day, Trump told The Wash­ing­ton Post that Murkowski would “never re­cover from this.”

In July 2017, both Collins and Murkowski de­fied their party on health care, doom­ing Re­pub­li­can ef­forts to fully undo the Af­ford­able Care Act. They were joined by Sen. John Mccain (R-ariz.); to­gether, the three sunk a mea­sure that would have killed key fund­ing and pro­tec­tions pro­vided by the law.

Five months ear­lier, Collins and Murkowski voted in con­cert against Trump’s ed­u­ca­tion sec­re­tary nom­i­nee, Betsy Devos, who they deemed un­qual­i­fied. Vice Pres­i­dent Pence was sum­moned to the Capi­tol to break a 50-to-50 tie on the nom­i­na­tion, a first.

The two sen­a­tors have al­ready shown a will­ing­ness to buck their party on impeachmen­t, re­fus­ing in Oc­to­ber to sign on to a res­o­lu­tion that con­demned the House in­quiry. Rom­ney joined them in de­clin­ing to sup­port the mea­sure.

Rom­ney has main­tained his own in­de­pen­dent streak since he joined the Se­nate early last year, crit­i­ciz­ing Trump on trade, op­pos­ing a ju­di­cial nom­i­nee who called for­mer pres­i­dent Barack Obama an “un-amer­i­can im­pos­tor” and lead­ing the charge against Her­man Cain as a po­ten­tial mem­ber of the Fed­eral Re­serve Board.

As of mid-2019, Rom­ney had voted against Trump more than any other Se­nate Re­pub­li­can, while Collins holds that dis­tinc­tion now, ac­cord­ing to a rank­ing by Fivethir­tyeight. More re­cently, Rom­ney has been one of the loud­est Re­pub­li­can crit­ics of Trump call­ing on Ukraine and China to in­ves­ti­gate for­mer vice pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den, the is­sue at the heart of the impeachmen­t in­quiry.

Mean­while, Alexan­der, a close Mccon­nell ally, is a vet­eran of the cham­ber and one of its re­main­ing in­sti­tu­tion­al­ists who also has bucked the pres­i­dent, in­clud­ing to re­ject Trump’s emer­gency dec­la­ra­tion is­sued last year to re­di­rect fed­eral fund­ing for his border wall. He is re­tir­ing af­ter this term.

“Any four peo­ple could be pow­er­ful,” Gra­ham said. “I re­spect them all.”

GABRIELLA DEMCZUK FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Sen. La­mar Alexan­der (R-tenn.), cen­ter, is one of a hand­ful of in­flu­en­tial swing GOP sen­a­tors who are push­ing to hold a vote on whether to call wit­nesses later in the impeachmen­t trial of Pres­i­dent Trump. Mean­while, the cham­ber’s right flank is in­creas­ingly ar­gu­ing for a more ag­gres­sive de­fense.

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