‘Not good for Iowa’: Senate Dems unload on caucus debacle

Facing imminent defeat in their attempt to remove President Donald Trump through impeachment, Senate Democrats woke up Tuesday to a new problem: A debacle in Iowa that will slow the party’s momentum and may hinder eventual unity around the Democrats’ presidential nominee.

Senior Senate Democrats said in interviews on Tuesday morning that the delayed Iowa caucus results will prompt a re-examination of the state’s exalted status. And they worried that it would delay the party from coalescing around Trump’s general election opponent in the days following Trump's acquittal on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

Democrats had hoped that Iowa might cull the field and provide the first evidence of which candidate is strongest to face Trump. But now Pete Buttigieg is claiming victory, Bernie Sanders is releasing his own internal polls, conspiracy theories are flourishing and it’s still not clear when the Iowa Democratic Party will release results.

The state has now become “a political asterisk and it's a shame,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).

“This caucus format does not reflect the reality of life and we're doing everything in our power to make voting easier for people. The Iowa caucus is the most painful, awkward approach,” Durbin said. “I don't think even today's announcement will have the same impact.”

“It’s certainly not good for Iowa. To the extent it persists the primary and delays us getting behind a single nominee, that is what is not helpful,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). “The sooner we get to some clarity about an eventual nominee the better off we are, because we can actually start to engage rather than be fussing with each other.”

Democrats didn’t exactly say that Iowa should get to the back of the primary line in 2024. And given the possibility the state is competitive this November none would unload on the Iowa Democratic Party, which helped House Democrats pick up two House seats in the 2018 midterms.

But Democrats who have long complained about the lack of diversity in a pivotal state as well as the inscrutable rules of the caucuses see an opportunity to rethink how Democrats choose future nominees.

"It can be among the first but it really does not represent the diversity of America. It speaks to an important part of America, which we should never ignore. But it would be better if the first test had a more diverse voter base,” Durbin said.

“There’s no question in my mind there will be a thorough review. And there have long been questions about how the primary season begins. So it will only add to it,” said Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.). “There’s going to be lots of examinations of what went wrong, why the apps [for reporting results] weren’t tested. And this isn’t calculus of several variables. This is mathematics.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) described the caucus process as "haphazard" and said there are "lessons to be learned."

"Either they reform the system or they forgo being first," he said. "But maybe there should be no first."

The confusion about the results of the Iowa caucuses prompted former Sen. Mary Landrieu to ask a group of reporters for an update on the winner, before complaining about the process.

"It's really a disservice to the country and we just have to think of a better process in the future," the Louisiana Democrat said as she was passing through the Capitol.

Amid a sustained assault from Democrats on Iowa’s unique role in American politics, its two Republican senators and governor sought to defend it. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst put out a joint statement with Gov. Kim Reynolds saying Iowa is “the ideal state to kick off the nominating process.”

Despite the latest mishap, some Democrats agree.

“It’s just disappointing, obviously, that it didn’t work as intended,” said Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who recently exited the presidential race. “There’s still a lot of benefits from Iowa, as the candidate that didn’t have big money or whatever. It’s nice to have a smaller state where you really have to go out and win in a grassroots campaigning style.”

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Why four key Republicans split — and the witness vote tanked

When Lamar Alexander and Lisa Murkowski met privately in his third-floor Capitol hideaway on Thursday night, Alexander broke the news: He was going to vote against bringing in new witnesses in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial.

The Tennessee Republican explained the rationale to his Alaska colleague: That the House managers had proven their case against the president but that it still wasn’t impeachable conduct and therefore more information was unnecessary, according to a person familiar with the exchange. But Alexander did not lobby Murkowski to join him.

Alexander also forwarded his statement announcing his decision to Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who would soon send her own press release in favor of hearing from witnesses, a position shared by Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah).

The four Republican senators have been the crucial swing votes to help shape Trump’s trial, and they’ve been in constant communication for weeks. They banded together to devise holding the vote on witnesses in the first place, a deal that helped seal unanimous GOP support for the rules of the impeachment trial. And they were texting and calling each other with increasing regularity as Trump’s trial began in earnest.

But on the biggest question of the impeachment trial, the group was going their separate ways. And their split decision will ensure Trump gets his speedy acquittal without the threat of new testimony that could upend GOP plans.

Still, in her meeting with Alexander, Murkowski kept her decision a secret.

“No,” Alexander said when asked if Murkowski tipped her hand. “She didn’t.”

The fast-moving events isolated Murkowski. Democrats’ hope of securing witnesses appeared doomed, but the optics of what was to follow still mattered. Now she was either going to give the Republicans a clear majority against witnesses or a tied vote that would fail unless Chief Justice John Roberts took the unlikely step of breaking the tie. She told reporters she would go home, put some eyedrops in and continue to pore over documents.

Murkowski had met with McConnell privately earlier in the week, in part to gather herself for the Senate’s question-and-answer period. During those marathon sessions, she aligned herself with different factions of the party, leaving Republicans and Democrats alike guessing as to her stance.

On Friday morning the interest in Murkowski was overwhelming. CNN fixed a camera on the hallways outside her office in case she would emerge and break the news. When Murkowski left her office, she dipped out the back, bumped into E&E reporter Geof Koss and gave him the news: She was a ‘no’ and Roberts would not have to break the tie.

The moment confirmed what GOP leaders had been projecting all week: The witness vote would fail, and Trump would be acquitted by a Senate that never heard from former national security adviser John Bolton, even as new revelations in a forthcoming book rattled Washington.

“I’ve always believed there would not be votes for witness,” said Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) on Friday afternoon. “It never made sense to me. Why would we go do the House’s job? It’s their job, not our job.”

Collins and Murkowski continued to take notes during Rep. Adam Schiff’s closing remarks, despite having already decided where they’d be on the witness question. As Schiff finished up, Murkowski watched intently, gently rocking back and forth in her chair. When it came time for the vote, the Alaska Republican stood up and voted no, with little fanfare.

After the vote to bring in more witnesses fell short on a 49-51 vote, she spoke with Majority Whip John Thune one-on-one before exiting the Senate chamber.

The instant relief of Republicans could play far differently over the long arc of history — and perhaps even sooner.

The GOP’s move to dismiss relevant witness testimony will be cited for years to come and be wielded by Democrats in upcoming Senate races, warned Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who called the decision a “giant political nightmare for Republicans.”

“This is the most high-profile event of the presidency over the final two years. And I think it will have legs. I think it will have impact,” Murphy said on Friday. “We now have legitimate reason to contest the fairness of the trial and the acquittal of the president.”

Senate votes to defeat Democratic bid to hear witnesses in Trump trial

But Murphy did not directly fault Alexander, even though he is widely regarded among both parties as the vote that got away from Democrats. That’s because in opposing witnesses, Alexander took great pains to fault Trump’s conduct.

“He at least was clear and forceful about how inappropriate, how wrong the president’s conduct was,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.). “But I have a hard time with him going with the step from that conclusion to saying we shouldn't remove him.”

Alexander reiterated in his Thursday night statement that it was wrong of Trump to solicit investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden. Alexander did not contest the facts presented by the House managers, and therefore, he said, he didn’t need to hear any more evidence that Trump held up aide and sought to sully a potential 2020 rival.

“It was inappropriate and wrong for the president to do what he did. I think it was proved. The question is whether you apply capital punishment to every offense,” Alexander said. “And in this case I think the answer is no.”

In making his argument against witnesses, Alexander had actually gone much farther in condemning Trump’s behavior than many of his GOP colleagues.

The reaction in his party was mixed. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) agreed Trump’s actions were “wrong and inappropriateand Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) put it this way: “Lamar speaks for lots and lots of us.”

Others were more restrained. “We all know that he is one of the most thoughtful, well respected” senators, said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). “I don't agree with every detail of what he said.”

Yet even though some of his colleagues were worried until late Thursday evening about Alexander's vote, it was clear from his statement that it would have taken an earth-shattering moment to back Democrats’ call for witnesses.

McConnell has maintained tight control of the trial over the last two weeks, but he mostly let Alexander do his thing, trusting in where his longtime friend would come down.

“He doesn’t ever say very much. I just told him what I was going to do,” Alexander said. “Senator McConnell and I have known each other for 50 years and he knows better than to tell me how to vote.”

The break with Alexander came as Collins runs for reeelection under sustained attack from Democrats for not, in their view, pushing hard enough on witnesses. But the other Republicans up for reelection argued strongly against witnesses, as did McConnell.

Collins had only warm feelings for Alexander, a three-term senator and chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that Collins serves on.

“He was kind enough to send me his statement before he released it. So I knew a little bit in advance,” Collins said on Friday. “But I have a lot of respect for him.”

Romney argued internally that it made sense to hear more evidence given that Bolton had been in the room with the president, but the 2012 presidential nominee’s push did not move any of his colleagues.

Murkowski’s calculation became more difficult after Alexander told McConnell and colleagues how he would vote on Thursday evening. She has previously bucked her party in high-profile moments, acting as the lone Republican to vote against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation and voting with Collins and the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to tank Republicans’ effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Now in the trial of whether to remove the president from office, she would be either the deciding vote against witnesses or throw responsibility to Roberts and put an asterisk over a historic Senate moment.

During Thursday’s question-and-answer session, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) had effectively called out Roberts for overseeing a trial without new evidence by asking whether it might “contribute to the loss of legitimacy of the Chief Justice, the Supreme Court, and the Constitution.”

A few hours later, the moderate Alaska Republican made clear Warren’s suggestion was still weighing on her.

“Some of my colleagues intend to further politicize this process, and drag the Supreme Court into the fray, while attacking the chief justice. I will not stand for nor support that effort,” Murkowski said.

Meanwhile, soon after dividing on the question of witnesses, the new moderate power center in the 53-member GOP caucus was back at it.

As Senate Republicans tried to figure out how to wind down Trump's trial Friday afternoon, McConnell privately met with a familiar foursome: Murkowski, Collins, Romney and Alexander.

Melanie Zanona contributed to this report.

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Murkowski to vote against calling witnesses in impeachment trial

Sen. Lisa Murkowski will not support hearing from new witnesses, essentially ensuring the vote fails on the Senate floor this afternoon.

The decision by a key swing vote will likely absolve Chief Justice John Roberts from having to decide whether to break a tie.

“The House chose to send articles of impeachment that are rushed and flawed. I carefully considered the need for additional witnesses and documents, to cure the shortcomings of its process, but ultimately decided that I will vote against considering motions to subpoena,” the Alaska Republican said in a statement.

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Republicans grow confident they can defeat witness vote and quickly end trial

Senate Republican leaders are feeling increasingly assured they can knock down an attempt to call more witnesses during President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial and wrap up the whole thing by the weekend — though plenty of drama still remains.

The pool of potential yes votes for witnesses is continuing to shrink, with few undecided Republican senators left to join the 47 Senate Democrats who will vote to extend the trial and hear new evidence. All speculation in the Senate centers on GOP Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the potential 50th and 51st votes for witnesses, respectively.

Republicans anticipate at least one will side with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and sink the witness vote, though they concede the final tally is up in the air, according to senators and aides. McConnell told reporters Thursday he’s “always” confident.

And now the GOP leadership is beginning to think about the endgame of the trial, strategizing how to end things quickly if the vote to seek more evidence fails on Friday. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) isn’t going to just roll over and allow a quick acquittal of Trump, but Republicans say they will move to a final vote on a verdict as soon as they can.

“We’re just continuing to just have conversations with people in hopes that we’ll get enough folks to a good place and be able to prevail” on witnesses, Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said in an interview. “My hope would be that if we do win tomorrow, that we will quickly close it out. I don’t think there’s any point in hanging around. I would like to go to a conclusion.”

Senators get first opportunity to ask impeachment managers and Trump’s lawyers questions

Republicans still need to figure out what the appetite is in their own conference for finishing things late Friday or early Saturday, or whether GOP senators will want more time to deliberate over Trump’s fate. While Trump is certain to be acquitted, there are Republicans like Mitt Romney of Utah, Susan Collins of Maine and Murkowski who are still weighing the evidence against him.

“People will probably want at some point to put statements in the record about how they came to the conclusion they did and that sort of thing. Whether or not that requires a bunch of speechifying in the Senate, I don’t know,” Thune said. “I can tell you there are a lot of our members … who, if we can prevail on witnesses, want to just move to the final question as quickly as possible and conclude this.”

Democrats are still holding out some hope that Alexander, Murkowski or a surprise Republican will revolt against McConnell and Trump and force deliberation over witnesses like former national security adviser John Bolton. But they are also beginning to discuss a backup plan: forcing more tough votes before acquittal.

Those options could range from proposals for a closed-door session to having more time to deliberate before delivering a verdict. No final decisions have been by the party on how to handle the possibility that 51 GOP senators try to move the trial to a quick end. There’s also the matter of whether it’s worth keeping the four Democratic senators running for president in town through the weekend.

The trial rules say “you can deliberate. Obviously, the majority vote determines everything, and again, we will decide that as we move forward,” Schumer said, emphasizing that his focus is on getting witnesses.

“Certainly we’re going to call attention to this rushed cover-up. And anything we can do to put our Republican colleagues on record points responsibility where it belongs. They’re the ones who are opposing witnesses and documents,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).

Privately, several Democrats say they do not know how Friday will proceed or what tactics Schumer will employ.

Republicans say they do not expect any surprises from the witness vote. Republican Sens. Martha McSally of Arizona, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania have all essentially come out against hearing new witnesses; other Republicans like Rob Portman of Ohio and Jerry Moran have yet to make their positions public.

“I’m 100 percent sure of how I’m going to vote. You’ll see soon and you won’t be surprised,” said Toomey, who said hearing new witness testimony would not be likely to change his mind about acquitting the president.

There’s a sense in the Capitol that there are few questions about where senators stand other than Alexander and Murkowski, with Republicans reporting increasing agreement among the conference to shut down the trial.

“The plan is to finish this up tomorrow or in the wee hours of the morning Saturday. It’s a matter of what delaying tactics the Democrats could use,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the No. 3 GOP leader. He said the Republicans will move to end the trial “once we have the votes to show we’re not going to have the witnesses.”

“I don’t think it will be baked until the time we take the vote. I would say I think there’s a sense of growing confidence in the Republican side,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.).

The witness vote will occur as late as 5 p.m. Friday if the White House defense team and the House impeachment managers use all their debate time, though Hawley said he didn’t expect the defense to use all of its time. Then, if Democrats can force more votes on motions, more debate time would be warranted.

That sort of procedural battle could make for an ugly Friday session that bleeds into the weekend, and the precise next steps are unclear. Senators could vote to adjourn and regroup on Saturday. The Senate could go into closed-door deliberations. Or McConnell could power through and end Trump’s trial in far speedier fashion than former President Bill Clinton’s trial.

“Anything could happen timing-wise,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a top McConnell deputy. “But things here almost always take longer than you think they’re going to take, so we’ll see.”

John Bresnahan contributed to this report.

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