Washington Wednesday: Impeachment in the Senate

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday, the 18th of December, 2019. Just one week till Christmas! Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up: Washington Wednesday. 

The House is set to vote today on two articles of impeachment against President Trump. House Democrats have enough votes to pass the articles on a party line vote, but it’s a different story in the Senate. 

There Republicans hold 53 seats. Democrats hold 45 seats, plus two independents who caucus with them, bringing their total to 47. 

Those 100 men and women do not technically vote on the articles of impeachment. They decide whether to convict the president and remove him from office. It’ll take a two-thirds majority to do that.

REICHARD: For more insight on how things may go down in the Senate, WORLD Radio’s J.C. Derrick met with Mark Strand in the nation’s capital. Strand is a former Senate staffer and is now president of the Congressional Institute. That’s a nonpartisan organization dedicated to helping members of Congress and congressional staff better understand the legislative process.

J.C. DERRICK: There have been three impeachment proceedings in U.S. history, but only two reached the Senate stage of the process. And they were handled in pretty different ways. Can you contrast what the country experienced with Andrew Johnson in 1868 and the Clinton impeachment of 1998? 

MARK STRAND: Yeah, the impeachment of Andrew Johnson was really a historical anomaly. Abraham Lincoln had made Andrew Johnson—a Democrat, former slave owner from Tennessee—vice president in 1864 thinking that the war was going to be won and that he wanted to start the reconciliation process early. 

Turned out that Lincoln, of course, was assassinated and then you ended up with a southern Democrat as the president—which, for the radical Republicans who were in charge of the House and the Senate, this was really unacceptable.

So, they basically looked for ways to impeach him. He finally gave them a reason, which was basically they passed a law saying he couldn’t fire Lincoln’s cabinet secretaries without their permission, and he did. 

And so the House overwhelmingly moved to impeach him and the Senate had a trial for conviction, and by one vote Andrew Johnson survives. They nearly got two-thirds of the vote to throw him out of office. So, it was a rather remarkable political exercise.

The only time we’ve ever had a trial, though, of course, was Bill Clinton. When Bill Clinton was impeached by the House on two charges having to do with lying to a grand jury and basically his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. The House voted to impeach him on these two charges and then the Senate moved to acquit him. One vote was—he won. It was 45 votes in favor of conviction. They needed 67 votes and they didn’t get it. The other was 50/50, but, again, nowhere near the two-thirds. 

DERRICK: So, both of them were handled in very different ways. How will the Senate determine how the rules play out this time? Will they vote on the rules by which they will carry this out? 

STRAND: The precedence of the Senate say that they must hold a trial if the House moves articles of impeachment. As I said, this will only be the third president this happened to. But it’s happened fairly regularly with judges. 

So they’re used to this process and the first cause of business is to then actually hold a vote on the rules that will be used to consider how impeachment will be done. This can determine how long the Senate has to be here, whether they will hear evidence, whether they’ll hear from witnesses. That’s a vote they could take. It’s not guaranteed. The Senate has to vote to call witnesses they want to do it. And the key thing is it has to be a simple majority vote in the Senate for these rules. 

But they’ll set up everything for how long they want to go, how many people can be on the prosecuting team, how many people can be in the defense team, can House members join the defense team? Normally it’s just the president’s own lawyers. But could they bring members over from the House like Doug Collins who’s on Judiciary Committee and ask him to sit on the defense team for the president. 

DERRICK: Or Jim Jordan. There are several candidates.

STRAND: Exactly. But that will all be decided in the rules package the Senate does in the very beginning. 

DERRICK: Now, I know the Constitution stipulates that the chief justice of the Supreme Court will preside over these hearings—

STRAND: For presidential impeachments, yes. 

DERRICK: Right, so how does that align with Mitch McConnell being the Senate majority leader? To what extent does he have authority, like, where do those lines of authority run? 

STRAND: His is still really pretty much a political leadership in terms of driving these votes on the rules package. 

And, by the way, they can amend these rules throughout the trial. So at any point that they decide that, well, we didn’t want to call witnesses before but now we feel we need to, they could change their minds and call—which is exactly what they did in the Clinton impeachment.

DERRICK: By a simple majority vote.

STRAND: Simple majority vote. Initially they said they didn’t want to call witnesses, then they did, then they thought better of it and they basically held depositions and had videotapes of the witnesses shown later at the trial. But for the most part, they could change at any time. 

So, McConnell will still have a leadership role to play and he will still control the time. For instance, he could actually go to other business at different parts of the day. So, let’s say they want to consider the USMCA free trade agreement between the United States and Canada and Mexico, he could do that in the mornings and hold the trial in the afternoon. So, he still has control over the agenda and sort of the procedure. But in the trial itself he has no role. He is just another juror just like every other senator.

DERRICK: OK. And it seems like he would have political motivation to do business in the morning and impeachment hearings in the afternoon because he can lock senators—who may or may not be running for president—into staying in Washington longer. Is that correct? 

STRAND: Yeah. Currently as we speak, there are still five senators remaining in the Democrat primary who will have to be sitting as jurors in this trial. And if you’re a Democrat senator running for president of the United States, you’re not going to be forgiven by your party base for skipping that trial. And so they’re going to have to be there. 

And one of the main topics of conversation will be Hunter Biden, so it’s going to affect six candidates running for president when you think about it. So Peter Buttigieg must think this is his lucky month.

DERRICK: Yeah, exactly. I’m glad you touched on that because that was my next question. It seems to be a foregone conclusion that the Senate will acquit, but there seems to be a lot of buzz and intrigue about how that will play out. And you mentioned Hunter Biden. To what extent may Republicans try to turn the spotlight on other elements of this whole story to their own benefit? 

STRAND: You know, it’s an interesting question and different people have different views. They could make this a political thing and call the witnesses they think the House didn’t call. They could call Adam Schiff as a witness, if they wanted to. They could call Hunter Biden. They could call Joe Biden. 

They could try to call the whistleblower, which is one of the worst kept secrets in Washington who the whistleblower is. 

They could do that, but at the same time they’re going to have to get Democrats witnesses too. And so who might they call? Would they call the former national security adviser [John] Bolton who did not testify in the House that he might now testify? And apparently he was not happy with what was going on in the Ukraine situation. Do the Republicans really want him testifying? 

I think in the end cooler heads are going to prevail. I think there are a lot of senators who still are fairly close to Joe Biden even in the Republican Party. And they think if he were to become president they could work with him. The idea of embarrassing him personally, especially through his son, is not going to sit well with a lot of senators. So I suspect in the end that they will probably have fewer witnesses or maybe none at all.

DERRICK: And so how long would you expect the process to last, start to finish?

STRAND: I think without witnesses, it all depends on how much business they want to do in the mornings, side business. But I think right now they’re probably looking at two to three weeks. There have been timetables that have gone as long as four to six weeks. 

But I think that since everyone kind of knows how it’s going to go, I don’t think Republicans want to play the same games that the Democrats played in the House. And they’ll do their due diligence and actually have a trial and consider all things. But probably try to get it over with as fast as they can.

DERRICK: OK. Mark Strand, president of the Congressional Institute. Thank you so much.

STRAND: My pleasure. Thanks.

(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) A copy of the House Judiciary Committee report on the impeachment of President Donald Trump sits on the witness table during a House Rules Committee hearing on the impeachment against President Donald Trump, Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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