Senate Republicans secured enough votes Tuesday to set rules that would open President Trump’s impeachment trial without immediately calling witnesses, defying House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and pushing her closer to a cave-in on refusing to transmit the articles of impeachment to the upper chamber.
The Senate GOP’s most unreliable and anti-Trump members didn’t defect from Senate Majority Leader McConnell, according to a whip count by The Washington Times.
“What was good enough for President Clinton is good enough for President Trump,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, who has insisted the impeachment trial mirror that of Mr. Clinton in 1999.
Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, Maine Sen. Susan Collins and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski say they support beginning the impeachment trial under the same rules the chamber used in 1999, falling in line with Mr. McConnell’s approach.
“The Clinton impeachment process provided a pathway for there to be witnesses, and presuming we have a process like that again, I would be able to support the Clinton impeachment process,” Mr. Romney told reporters at the Capitol.
It’s been nearly three weeks since Mrs. Pelosi’s House Democrats impeached Mr. Trump, but she has held on to the two articles of impeachment and prevented the start of a Senate trial, saying she first wants the Republican-controlled chamber to agree to a fair process.
After returning Tuesday to the Capitol from a two-week holiday break, the California Democrat remained mum on the subject.
The president was impeached for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, charges that stem from Mr. Trump’s July 25 phone call with the Ukrainian president in which he requested a probe into a political rival, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, is demanding witness testimony during the impeachment trial. He had hoped four moderate Republican senators would join his request, giving Democrats the 51 votes needed to prevail in a floor vote.
But as of Tuesday, three of the Senate GOP’s moderate members who are the most likely defectors — Mr. Romney, Ms. Murkowski and Ms. Collins — backed the 1999 impeachment trial approach for Mr. Trump. That process would leave the decision on calling additional witnesses until after House Democrats’ impeachment managers and the president’s legal team make their cases.
Mr. McConnell said Mrs. Pelosi’s conduct in refusing to turn over the articles of impeachment is “embarrassing,” suggesting she is engaging in a “pretrial hostage negotiation.”
“I have difficulty seeing where the leverage is,” Mr. McConnell said on the chamber floor. “One cynical political game right on top of another.”
During the Clinton trial, the House managers presented their case prosecuting the president and then the president’s legal team was able to respond before the issue of whether to call witnesses was decided.
Democrats, though, want to implement new procedures, demanding former National Security Adviser John R. Bolton and acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, among others, be called to testify.
Mr. Schumer said his party will try to call for witnesses and documents, but he would need 51 senators to succeed. The Democratic caucus holds 47 seats, while Republicans have 53.
“We only want a trial that examines all the facts and let the chips fall where they may,” Mr. Schumer said. “The American people want witnesses and documents.”
He defended Mrs. Pelosi, saying withholding the articles succeeded in keeping Senate Republicans from quickly dismissing the case. He said it also allowed more developments favorable to the impeachment case, including Mr. Bolton’s announcement that he would be willing to testify if subpoenaed by the upper chamber.
“She has accomplished a great deal already. It’s helped our case,” he said.
Mr. Trump appeared unconcerned Tuesday about testimony from Mr. Bolton.
“He would know nothing about what we’re talking about because if you know, the Ukrainian government came out with a very strong statement — no pressure, no anything, and that’s from the boss, that’s from the president of Ukraine,” Mr. Trump said.
House Democrats had requested Mr. Bolton testify during their investigation of Mr. Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which he requested a corruption probe into Mr. Biden, whose son Hunter landed a high-paying post on the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma Holdings while his father, now a 2020 Democratic presidential frontrunner, spearheaded Obama White House policy in that graft-riddled country.
But they did not subpoena Mr. Bolton, who refused to participate in House proceedings.
• Tom Howell Jr. contributed to this report.