WASHINGTON - Senate Republicans are coalescing around a strategy of holding a short impeachment trial early next year that would include no witnesses, a plan that could clash with President Donald Trump's desire to stage a public defense of his actions toward Ukraine that would include testimony the White House believes would damage its political rivals.
Several GOP senators on Wednesday said it would be better to limit the trial and quickly vote to dismiss the House charges against Trump rather than engage in what could become a political circus.
"I would say I don't think the appetite is real high for turning this into a prolonged spectacle," Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., the second-ranking Senate Republican, told The Washington Post Wednesday when asked whether Trump will get the witnesses he wants in an impeachment trial. "Members want to deal with the arguments, hear the case and hopefully reach a conclusion."
The deliberations in the Senate come as the House Judiciary Committee is set to approve two articles of impeachment against the president on Thursday that will then be voted on by the full House next week. House Democratic leaders are searching for ways to minimize defections among a group of moderates who are concerned a vote to impeach Trump could cost them their seats in November.
But House Democrats are still expected to have more than enough votes to impeach Trump, which has put of the focus on how the Senate will conduct its trial even if the GOP-controlled chamber would almost certainly vote to acquit the president.
The emerging Senate GOP plan would provide sufficient time, possibly two weeks, for both the House impeachment managers and Trump's attorneys to make their arguments before a vote on the president's fate, according to 13 senators and aides familiar with the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private talks.
Most notably, a quick, clean trial is broadly perceived to be the preference of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who wants to minimize political distractions in an election year during which Republicans will be working to protect their slim majority in the chamber.
The tension now is on whether to allow witnesses who could turn the trial into an even more contentious affair.
Trump's desired witness list includes House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter, as well as the anonymous whistleblower whose complaint about the president's conversations with Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky led to the House impeachment inquiry.
Senior Republicans said they see no need for controversial witnesses if their testimony won't ultimately change the expected outcome.
At a Senate GOP luncheon this week, McConnell warned his colleagues against calling witnesses. "Mutually assured destruction," he said, according to a Republican in the room who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the majority leader's private comments.
McConnell is not sure Republicans have enough votes to only call Trump's preferred list, the person said. Any agreement to call a witness would require 51 votes and if Democratic votes were needed to end an impasse among Republicans, Senate Minority Leaders Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., would demand his own list of witnesses as part of any compromise.
Under McConnell's thinking, this could possibly mean calling Vice President Mike Pence and top White House aides, such as acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, to testify.
"Witnesses would be a double-edged sword," Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., said.
McConnell has not publicly stated specifically how he wants a Senate trial to be conducted. Earlier this week, he laid out two potential scenarios: Once both sides make their case, the Senate could call a series of witnesses, which he said would be "basically having another trial."
Or, McConnell said, a majority of senators will decide "they've heard enough and believe they know what would happen," subsequently moving to a final vote.
His members are getting the hint.
"I think he's indicated that he would like to get this over with and get to quite a few other matters that we can get done," Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said. "In other words, get back to business."
Even GOP lawmakers initially eager to summon high-profile witnesses have begun to back away from that approach.
Last week, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., was pushing for Hunter Biden to testify. But on Wednesday, he conceded that a trial with no witnesses that would run approximately two weeks in January was "kind of growing as the consensus."
Despite the emerging view among Senate Republicans, the wild card remains Trump.
The president and his allies have said they are eager for a vigorous defense of Trump to counter the narrative Democrats have laid out in recent weeks as part an inquiry that has resulted in articles of impeachment charging that the president has abused his power and should be removed from office.
"He wants to have his opportunity, for the first time, to present his defense," said Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga.
White House aides met with GOP senators last week to make the case for a more robust trial, that would include live witnesses on the floor, rather than videotaped depositions that were entered into evidence during President Bill Clinton's impeachment trial in 1999.
"In this instance, we believe very strongly - given the fatally flawed process in the House - that if they were to elect against our better advice [and] send over impeachment to the Senate, that we need witnesses as part of our trial and a full defense of the president on the facts," Eric Ueland, the White House director of legislative affairs, told reporters following the lunch with Republican lawmakers.
Republicans privately hope that once the president sees that calling controversial witnesses will do nothing to change the outcome, he will relent on his initial demands.
Meanwhile, House Democratic leaders are bracing for the possibility of losing a handful of moderate Democrats on impeachment next week, as several centrists reconsider the political consequences of voting to oust Trump.
Lawmakers and senior staff are privately predicting they will lose more than the two Democrats who opposed the impeachment inquiry rules package in late September, according to multiple officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private party deliberations. Two senior Democratic aides said the total could be as many as a half-dozen. A third said it could be even higher.
Several moderates are concerned polling has not shown more support for impeaching Trump despite the party's weeks-long effort to highlight allegations they argue merit removing the president from office. Some of the members have privately pushed for other options, including a censure vote, or have even considered "splitting the baby," voting for one article of impeachment but not the other.
"I'm still thinking it over," said Rep. Susie Lee, a centrist who hails from a GOP-leaning Nevada district Trump carried in 2016. "This is a very grave decision . . . I'm hearing all sides of it."
While the House is expected to easily pass the two articles, party leaders want to limit defections to deny Republicans the opportunity to crow that members of both parties opposed impeachment while only Democrats supported taking such an action. But Pelosi and others in leadership are also mindful of the political realities their more moderate members face back home and do not want to push them into a vote that could help cost them their seat in 2020.
Democratic leadership sources say they don't intend to whip the vote, allowing each member to make his or her own personal choice on a historic roll call that many see as a legacy issue.
The impeachment articles allege Trump tried to leverage a White House meeting and military aid, sought by Ukraine to combat Russian military aggression, to pressure Zelensky to launch an investigation of the Bidens as well as a probe of an unfounded theory that Kyiv conspired with Democrats to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. In addition, they accuse the president of obstructing the House's ability to investigate the matter.
"This is one of those issues where members have to come to their own conclusions; it's just too consequential," said Rep. Daniel Kildee, D-Mich., a deputy whip. "I think this is one of those votes where people are going to be remember for a long time for how they voted on it."
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The Washington Post's Toluse Olorunnipa and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.
This article was written by Seung Min Kim, Paul Kane and Rachael Bade, reporters for The Washington Post.