Senate Republicans turn on Trump over suspend-the-Constitution talk

Senate Republicans are slowly but surely distancing themselves from Donald Trump after a call to terminate the Constitution and a meeting with antisemites — though there’s no sign any will start actively opposing his 2024 campaign.

The former president’s campaign launch is landing with a thud among Republican leaders, many of whom began losing interest after his loss to Joe Biden and are now openly pining for a crowded primary field to take on Trump. That hope for intraparty competition is a flashback to the opening days of the 2016 election, except this time Trump has baggage ranging from stoking an insurrection to a sitdown with Ye and white nationalist Nick Fuentes to his latest call to illegally unwind his 2020 defeat.

As polls show Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) competitive with Trump and many other Republicans eye a run against him, some in the GOP think Trump might even end up pulling the plug on his nascent campaign.

“I just think, in the end, he will not end up running because [of] the polling,” said retiring Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio). “The trend line is not positive.”

Trump on Saturday falsely cited “massive fraud” in his 2020 loss before calling for a “termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution" in order to reinstate him as president or hold a new election.
That comment, Portman said, “makes no sense.”

Many election officials, including Trump's own former attorney general, have affirmed that no voter fraud occurred on a scale significant enough to affect Biden's victory over Trump. And spending yet another year litigating 2020 is too much for some party leaders.

“I’m at a loss for words. We need to move on,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an adviser to McConnell, said of the constitutional-suspension posts from the former president. Cornyn added that the prospect of Trump winning the nomination is “increasingly less likely, given statements like that.”

While few Republicans spoke out publicly before returning to Washington on Monday, Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said “of course I disagree with that” when asked about Trump's comments. The No. 2 Senate Republican would not say whether he’d support Trump if the former president wins the GOP nomination in 2024 and said he’s “just not going to go there at this point — that’s a long way off.”

But Thune did predict Trump’s remarks would fuel the ambitions of Republicans who'd want to take on the former president in a 2024 primary: “It’s just one of those intuitively obvious things, whether a candidate for office has sort of a bedrock principle, ‘are you going to support the Constitution?’” Thune said. “For him, it’s not all that unusual. But it will be the grist and plenty of fodder for those that are looking to get into that race.”

Trump could face competition from DeSantis and a handful of Republican senators for the nomination. Rather than actively oppose his candidacy, many in the GOP are betting he will fall flat on his own this time around after twice winning the Republican nomination.

Some said the party's lackluster midterm results speak for themselves.

“The facts of the election in 2022 are just indisputable. The ultra, pro-Trump, handpicked by Trump, based on loyalty to Trump? Those candidates wildly underperformed,” said retiring Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who voted to convict the former president in his second impeachment trial. “It's pretty clear that he’s become a toxic force and that's going to diminish his influence a lot.”

His suspend-the-Constitution posts on his Truth Social platform mark the second time in two weeks that Trump has prompted criticism from within the GOP, after he dined last month with antisemitic rapper Ye, better known as Kanye West, and white nationalist Nick Fuentes. That sitdown led Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to predict that anyone holding meetings with people who use their profiles to disseminate bigotry “are highly unlikely to ever be elected president of the United States.”

The meeting with Ye and Fuentes, Trump’s postings about the Constitution and a hangover from his role nominating several losing candidates are all animating Republicans to reconsider Trump’s viability. And some of the party's senators have been there all along.

“I’d like Republicans to win elections again, unlike the way this guy has made sure my party could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in 2018 and in 2020 and again in 2022,” said Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who is leaving Congress next month to become president of the University of Florida.

Sasse voted to convict Trump in his 2021 impeachment trial and was a frequent critic of the former president’s. He says now “people in my party have to decide: Do they want to keep giving oxygen to somebody who is trying to sell tickets to his own proprietary circus, or do they want to be a constitutional party that has a clear agenda.”

Many of those who will serve beyond January were more reserved but still clearly broke with Trump. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said the substance of Trump's proposal is “pretty simple, it’s unconstitutional.” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), another McConnell adviser, dismissed Trump’s comments as “ridiculous” and said they “sounded like a little crazy talk to me.” And retiring Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said there’s “no emergency clause not to follow the Constitution.”

McConnell declined to respond to questions about Trump's postings on a constitutional suspension, saying he’d address it Tuesday at his weekly press conference.

Trump tried to walk back his willingness to suspend the Constitution on Monday, posting that “the Fake News is actually trying to convince the American People that I said I wanted to ‘terminate’ the Constitution.” Yet he followed that comment with another suggestion that in fact he would be open to a suspension, suggesting “no time limit” for holding a new presidential election.

And while no one would defend Trump’s idea of terminating the Constitution, several saw value in his rants about Twitter’s decision to suppress reporting about Hunter Biden’s personal computer files during the 2020 election. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said what “Trump said was wrong, but what happened at Twitter was wrong.”

“One of the reasons that the Twitter story is so significant is because it shows a direct threat to the First Amendment,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.). “The First Amendment, or any part of the Constitution, should never be suspended.”

But only a few focused on Twitter’s missteps, in contrast to Trump’s comments. Former Vice President Mike Pence responded to Trump, albeit indirectly, by saying that “everyone that aspires to serve or serve again should make it clear that we will support and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who voted to convict Trump in his impeachment trial and just won reelection, said on Sunday night “that suggesting the termination of the Constitution is not only a betrayal of our oath of office, it’s an affront to our Republic.” And Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said that “anyone who desires to lead our country must commit to protecting the Constitution."

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Sasse likely to resign from Senate, putting all eyes on Ricketts

Ben Sasse is likely to accept a job as the president of the University of Florida and resign his Senate seat in the near future, according to two people familiar with the Nebraska Republican's plans.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts would then appoint a replacement for Sasse under state law, with the seat then up for a special election in 2024. One of the people familiar with Sasse's plans said Ricketts himself is viewed as a potential appointee for the seat.

The University of Florida confirmed Sasse’s plans in a press release Thursday that announced him as the sole finalist for the position. Given the length of the university’s process, the exact timing of his future resignation is up in the air but likely to happen this year.

Sasse said he and his wife have been “pursued by wonderful institutions the past two years, but we’ve resisted being a finalist. This time is different because the University of Florida is different: I think Florida is the most interesting university in America right now.”

The second-term Sasse made a name for himself as a consistent Donald Trump critic in Congress as well as a reliable conservative vote. Despite his interest in academia, his resignation will be a bit of a surprise after he ran for reelection in 2020 and the potential that he could one day pursue higher office.

Sasse was one of seven GOP senators to vote to convict the former president during Trump's second impeachment trial, after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. His resignation will create a safe GOP seat in a red state; in addition to Ricketts, Nebraska GOP Reps. Don Bacon and Mike Flood may also be in the mix for the appointment.

Ricketts said that Sasse “has one of the most conservative voting records in the Senate, and we need more conservative voices in our universities. Senator Sasse is also incredibly smart and has the experience and a clear passion for higher education.”

As far as a potential self-appointment, Ricketts spokesperson Alex Reuss said that “we aren’t going to speculate at this point. Right now, Senator Sasse is a sitting U.S. senator, and there’s no appointment to be made.”

Sasse has been interested in an academic job for quite some time, according to Republicans familiar with his future plans. Ahead of his 2020 run, there was speculation he would seek an open position to lead the University of Nebraska; prior to running for Senate, he was president of Midland University.

In an interview in February 2021 as his state party prepared to censure him over his impeachment vote (ultimately he got reprimanded), Sasse spoke at length about his views on education — and how he thought the Democrats’ coronavirus aid package missed the mark.

“I can't use the word progressive, I guess, but I care deeply about poverty and about the fact that lower-middle class people are not being well-served by the education establishment, either at K-12 or at the higher-ed level,” Sasse said. “And so you look at this package. Is this really to help poor kids? Hell no.”

In recent years he's maintained a relatively low profile in the Senate, while expressing frustration with the chamber and politics more broadly. Sasse has tried at times to engage his colleagues in debate on the Senate floor, and says that serving on the Senate Intelligence Committee is the best part of his job.

He and his family agonized over whether he should even run for reelection in 2020 after his first full term in the Senate, and "everybody was between 51 percent and 75 percent that we thought this was our calling. So nobody was below 50-50. And yet nobody was like 95 percent.”

“This institution should be a lot more effective than it is. And the only part of every day that's really effective is the Intel work,” he said in the 2021 interview.

In one of Sasse's more high-profile moments this year, he sparred with Sen. Chris Murphy on the floor in March over the Connecticut Democrat's tweet attacking Republicans for criticizing President Joe Biden’s handling of the Ukraine war, while voting against a government spending bill that included aid to Kyiv.

Sasse’s sherpa through the university search process was Gov. Ron DeSantis’ chief of staff James Uthmeier, who was put in contact with Sasse several months ago after he quietly expressed interest in becoming UF president. Florida’s flagship university enrolls more than 55,000 students.

“He had been sending smoke signals, it was known for a while interest was there,” said a Florida Republican operative familiar with the process. “I’m not sure who got him on touch with James, but once that happened he took it from there.”

Uthmeier declined to comment.

DeSantis has no direct role in the process, but is responsible for appointing the panel that will now give final consideration to hiring Sasse. Sasse was selected as the only finalist after a national search and more than 700 candidates.

The Florida GOP-led Legislature during the 2022 session approved a bill that allows universities in the state to conduct searches for university presidents outside of Florida’s public records and open meetings laws.

In addition to his work on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sasse this year worked with a bipartisan group of senators to reform the 1887 Electoral Count Act, a response to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. He is one of the original GOP co-sponsors of the bill.

"Ben is a good and smart and principled person," said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). "I can hardly think of an issue on which we agreed but he is someone whom I respect for always standing by the courage of his conviction for always being thoughtful and for standing up for the rule of law."

A member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sasse recently attended Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s investiture ceremony, despite voting against her nomination.

In a statement shortly after, Sasse said he wouldn’t attack the credibility of the court and wished “more of my colleagues would take a similar approach.”

“America doesn’t work when partisans try to burn down our institutions,” he said.

Some details of Sasse’s future were first reported by a former aide, Ian Swanson, who has his own show on 1110 KFAB.

Matt Dixon contributed to this story.

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Senators strike bipartisan gun safety agreement

A group of 20 senators struck a bipartisan gun safety framework on Sunday, marking a significant breakthrough in Congress' attempts to address recent back-to-back mass shootings.

In a Sunday morning statement, 10 senators in each party announced support for the deal. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer blessed it, vowing to “put this bill on the floor as soon as possible,” and President Joe Biden said it “would be the most significant gun safety legislation to pass Congress in decades.” The president urged both chambers of Congress to finish the package quickly.

The emerging package is anchored around extra scrutiny for gun buyers under the age of 21, grants to states to implement so-called red flag laws and new spending on mental health treatment and school security. While translating the agreement into legislation will take time, the large group of supportive senators shows that the package could gain 60 votes on the Senate floor before heading to the House.

“Our plan saves lives while also protecting the constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans. We look forward to earning broad, bipartisan support and passing our commonsense proposal into law,” the 20 senators said in their statement.

Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) are the lead negotiators on the proposal. The most significant piece of the proposal would subject gun buyers 21 and younger to scrutiny of their criminal and mental health records as juveniles. It's proved tricky to write because each state has different laws governing juvenile records.

A broader bipartisan group has held its own regular meetings on guns over the past three weeks since the elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. And with Democrats controlling only 50 Senate seats, the approval of 10 Republicans is critical to moving forward.

In addition to the core four negotiators, the legislation is backed by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), Angus King (I-Maine), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). Portman, Toomey, Blunt and Burr are all retiring at the end of the year.

“Families are scared, and it is our duty to come together and get something done that will help restore their sense of safety and security in their communities,” the 20 senators said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell released a statement welcoming the announcement as proof of "the value of dialogue and cooperation," though he sidestepped a direct endorsement of the framework: "I continue to hope their discussions yield a bipartisan product that makes significant headway on key issues like mental health and school safety, respects the Second Amendment, earns broad support in the Senate, and makes a difference for our country.”

In addition to provisions on red flag laws, which allow law enforcement to seek temporary removal of firearms from an individual who is a threat to himself or others, the package also would close what's known as the "boyfriend loophole" by broadening firearms restrictions on those who have abused their romantic partners.

The package also aims to crack down on straw purchasers and illegal unlicensed firearms dealers, according to a summary of the agreement.

The emerging framework comes nearly three weeks after 19 children and two teachers died in the Uvalde shooting. The killings in Texas occurred roughly a week after a racist mass shooter killed 10 people at a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y. March for Our Lives, a gun safety group founded after the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., held nationwide demonstrations on Saturday urging Congress to address gun violence.

“Each day that passes, more children are killed in this country: the sooner it comes to my desk, the sooner I can sign it, and the sooner we can use these measures to save lives,” Biden said Sunday.

While Sunday’s announcement is a major breakthrough, translating a framework into an actual bill often proves challenging. During last year’s bipartisan infrastructure negotiations, for example, more than six weeks passed between negotiators' announcement of a framework and Senate passage of the resulting bill. And a GOP aide involved in the negotiations stressed that Sunday's agreement was an "agreement on principles, not legislative text."

"The details will be critical for Republicans, particularly the firearms-related provisions," the aide warned. "One or more of these principles could be dropped if text is not agreed to."

While the nascent framework is modest compared to Democrats’ long-running push for expanded background checks, it could result in a high-water mark for GOP support for any level of gun restrictions. And at the moment, it's the closest the chamber’s been to a broader gun safety deal since 2013, when Manchin and Toomey wrote bipartisan legislation in response to the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

“After an unrelenting wave of gun-related suicides and homicides, including mass shootings, the Senate is poised to act on commonsense reforms to protect Americans where they live, where they shop, and where they learn. We must move swiftly to advance this legislation because if a single life can be saved it is worth the effort,” Schumer said in his statement on Sunday.

Most Republicans and a handful of Democrats blocked the Manchin-Toomey legislation. And while the Senate tried again in 2019 to reach a deal after mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, then-President Donald Trump disengaged amid the House impeachment inquiry. The most significant recent new gun law came from Murphy and Cornyn, which strengthened the background check system.

This time around, Democrats would have preferred to expand background checks to more prospective gun buyers and ban assault rifles, though those moves lack the necessary support among Republicans. A handful of Republicans are supportive of raising the age to purchase assault rifles to 21, something McConnell has expressed personal openness to, but neither McConnell nor Cornyn have pushed that as part of the package, and the idea may not get the 60 votes needed to survive a GOP filibuster.

Given those challenging dynamics, Senate Democratic leaders are willing to take a more modest deal than the sweeping restrictions most in Biden's party support.

Any legislation on the Senate floor may be subject to amendments, provided the bipartisan group can complete legislative text and lock in the 60 votes needed to start debate. After two more weeks in session, Congress is currently scheduled to take a two-week break on June 24.

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McConnell stirs GOP intrigue with support for Biden’s infrastructure bill

Moments before the Senate took a pivotal vote on its bipartisan infrastructure deal, negotiators zeroed in on the most important undecided member: Mitch McConnell.

The Senate minority leader stayed quiet for weeks but finally tipped his hand on Wednesday afternoon on the floor to a bipartisan group of colleagues, according to senators and aides. He told them he would support moving ahead on the bill, provided that the legislation coming to a final vote was their agreement — not something written by Senate Democrats.

It was the first inkling, among even McConnell’s closest allies, that the Kentucky Republican would support one of President Joe Biden’s top priorities: a bipartisan effort to plow $550 billion in new spending to roads, bridges, public transit and broadband. No senator in McConnell’s inner circle knew that he was about to take the plunge until moments before the vote, and some didn’t know until McConnell broke the news on Twitter.

The rumbling on the floor “was the first I heard about it. And then boom, the tweet came out right after that,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), McConnell’s top deputy as the GOP whip. “The leader just kind of let everybody do their own thing, and they did. And he did his own thing.”

That McConnell took such care before revealing his stance reflects deep divisions in his conference over whether to hand Biden a victory on a bill with shaky financing that wasn’t even drafted as it came to the Senate floor. McConnell had opposed the bill on procedural grounds just a week ago, lamenting that moving forward on unwritten legislation did not make sense.

But this week, McConnell did just that, twice advancing the bipartisan infrastructure plan although it split his conference — something he is loath to do. Shortly before the vote and after McConnell announced his position on Wednesday, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), a frequent detractor, put his arm on the GOP leader and offered a few warm words after previously predicting he would oppose the bill.

Schatz declined to comment on his conversation with McConnell but conceded that he was “surprised” by the support thus far from the chamber's self-declared "Grim Reaper" of Democratic legislation.

“I’m happy to admit that I was wrong” if McConnell keeps up support for the bill, Schatz said.

“He said he wanted us to be successful and he was able to be there at the end. I think he realizes it’s important for the institution,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), one of the bill’s chief negotiators. “He probably looked at it and said: ‘Yeah, this is kind of the way we used to do things.’”

McConnell also surmises that if he and his party became the face of obstruction, it could lead Democratic moderates like Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona to waver on the filibuster, advisers said. So in order to keep his veto power intact, McConnell is taking a more conciliatory approach on infrastructure, which he views as less ideological compared to the other issues.

Still, McConnell’s brand is lockstep GOP opposition in the face of Democratic government. And he faces anything but unity in the days ahead. Just 18 of 50 Senate Republicans supported moving forward on the infrastructure accord, with every presumed 2024 presidential contender voting no. Only two members of McConnell’s primary six-person leadership team voted positively on the bill.

Complicating matters for Republicans, former President Donald Trump vehemently opposes the bipartisan proposal. He even threatened to oust Republicans who supported it about ten minutes after McConnell announced his own position.

Thune opposed moving forward on the bipartisan framework, as did Republican Conference Chair John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Republican Conference Vice Chair Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and campaign arm chair Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who assailed it as “insane deficit spending.” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a former whip who may succeed McConnell, also voted against moving forward, even giving a speech criticizing the effort as “not ready” for the Senate floor.

Yet McConnell praised the effort as a “focused compromise,” even going so far this week as to say he was “happy” to advance it. At the same time, he went out of his way to throttle the bipartisan bill’s companion legislation, a Democratic-only spending plan that raises taxes on the wealthy and spends as much as $3.5 trillion.

Questions still remain about whether McConnell will support the final product, although there’s a growing feeling that in the end, the longtime GOP leader will stick alongside bipartisan negotiators, and his friend, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who helped write the bill.

“I’ve always thought he was for this bill. I think he’s been for the bill since Day One,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), who has opposed moving forward.

McConnell is not whipping his members to support the bill, and there are no plans to develop a conference-wide recommendation to support it, according to a Republican senator. In the end, that means McConnell could be on something of an island in a GOP conference that’s offered unanimous support for him as leader in party elections.

Still, it is entirely possible that the number of Republican votes will grow as the Senate continues its work. Thune and Cornyn said they’re undecided on the final product, though Barrasso said “it’s going to be difficult” to back it.

Ernst said she could vote for the bill if she had the legislative text, time to assess it and if it helps her state’s biofuels industry. Her state’s senior Republican senator, Chuck Grassley, has supported the legislation.

“I know that this is a very popular bill. I think [McConnell’s] glad we’re working on a bipartisan bill, where we have input,” Ernst said in an interview on Friday. “He has not asked me to support. I think he feels very strongly we should each evaluate that bill on our own.”

Among McConnell's senior leadership team, only Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the retiring Policy Committee chair, has supported moving forward on the bill. And his vote didn’t come from any conversation with McConnell.

“When I said I was going to vote yes, I didn’t know McConnell was going to vote yes,” Blunt said, adding that McConnell’s vote was not “shared widely with the conference.”

Despite McConnell’s singular focus on taking back the majority next year, for the most part he’s allowed his members to come to their own conclusions in an evenly split Senate where every member is an important power center. Earlier this year, he told members that their decision in Trump’s impeachment trial was a “vote of conscience.” But McConnell also actively whipped his conference against nominees and vigorously opposed a proposed independent Jan. 6 commission.

McConnell’s position on infrastructure, at least so far, is even more favorable than his approach to the 2013 immigration bill, which he opposed but did not actively try to block. He’s also surprised his colleagues at times, voting for Democratic nominees like Merrick Garland and Loretta Lynch and famously reversing his blockade on a criminal justice reform bill in 2018.

This year, with full control of Washington for the first time in a decade, Democrats made clear they will pursue their agenda with or without GOP support. McConnell and the dozen-plus Senate Republicans who've joined him on infrastructure votes are making the calculation that it’s better to put the Republican stamp on something than to get rolled on everything.

“There were only two choices here. One option is: We do a bipartisan bill. And the other option is: The Democrats do a bill on their own. There’s not an option of ‘don’t do anything,’” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), another negotiator of the bipartisan deal. “Leader McConnell recognized this was a better option than just letting the Democrats do this on their own.”

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Can Rob Portman seal the big bipartisan deal?

If you called central casting for a senator to cut a bipartisan infrastructure deal, you’d get Rob Portman.

The Ohio Republican, a former White House budget chief with two terms under his belt as well as the ear of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, is an ideal bridge between his party’s two wings. Portman acquitted then-President Donald Trump in his second impeachment trial but later backed an independent commission on the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. And a looming retirement from Congress frees Portman from the political burden of facing voters next fall, leaving him able to shrug off Trump’s attacks on his work.

Yet Portman is finding it hard to clinch an agreement, no matter how much insider savvy he brings as the lead GOP infrastructure negotiator. Even if an infrastructure bill can be written, Portman still must shepherd it across the floor and to President Joe Biden’s desk amid attacks from his own party.

It’s the kind of legacy-defining challenge he has long sought. But Portman warned his colleagues on Tuesday at a party lunch that everything could fall apart: Though he’s optimistic, he said the deal could still blow up and alleged that any collapse would be on Democrats’ shoulders, according to two sources familiar with the meeting.

Democrats will be happy to return the favor and blame Portman because there’s entrenched skepticism within the caucus that he can hit such a massive target and deliver 10 GOP votes. Still, Portman said in a Tuesday interview that he’s not going to walk away as talks turn hairy.

“It’s much more comfortable to stay on the right and the left and be negative,” he added, taking the subtlest of shots at his critics in both parties. “What takes courage is to find that middle ground and embrace the fact that our job here is not to simply express our points of view through our partisan rhetoric. Our job is to actually get beyond that and accomplish something.”

New signs of possible progress emerged Wednesday as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the chamber could vote to advance an infrastructure accord by the evening.

Before that, the bipartisan group of senators sensed an impending impasse in collective negotiations and tapped Portman to finish the job with White House counselor Steve Ricchetti — a role that puts even more pressure on Portman. He said it’s “overstated” to assume it’s just him and Ricchetti making the big decisions: “We’re physically sitting down and trying to work out these issues, but we’re both checking back with our respective groups.”

The mild-mannered Portman is a veteran U.S. trade representative, tax wonk in the House and now a senator with seniority and stature, the furthest thing from a bomb-thrower built for the Trump era. Portman was handily re-elected in 2016 but chose retirement over navigating the post-Trump landscape in the GOP.

Senate Democrats still question whether the buttoned-up Ohioan can take the risks required to reach a deal with nearly $600 billion in new spending that's bound to anger the right. Several of Portman's colleagues in the majority privately criticized his legislative courage but didn't do so out loud, lest it upset the fragile talks.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said she’s worked well with Portman but that the “proof is in the pudding” whether he can deliver on infrastructure. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) added: “I will believe there’s a deal when I see there’s a deal.”

“Everybody's wondering: What's his end game? What's the impact of him getting ready to retire? What's the impact on his long-term relationship with McConnell?" said one Senate Democrat, speaking candidly on condition of anonymity. “There's a general suspicion ... why is this taking so long?"

It's already been a month since Portman joined Biden and his fellow nine negotiators to unveil a framework. Now he has an opportunity to complete that work, shaping his party in a more conciliatory mold and dispelling Democratic suspicions that he and fellow Republicans only want to slow the president down.

First, he has to deliver.

“He’s got the horsepower from the policy standpoint. But he’s also got the right temperament,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), who added that if Portman can’t seal the deal, then “nobody can, I don’t think. He’s probably the perfect guy on our side for this.”

Portman was a lead negotiator on arcane battles over tax cuts and Obamacare repeal and has led the Senate’s work on fighting opioid addiction. His office boasts that he’s helped shepherd 150 bills into law since assuming office in 2011.

Though he's a reliable Republican vote, he has tacked to the center on several issues, notably opposing Trump’s national emergency declaration at the border and working with a bipartisan group of senators last year on a coronavirus relief package.

But Portman is not a traditional moderate and can be a tough vote to get. His 2013 efforts to insert an e-Verify amendment in the Senate’s bipartisan immigration bill ran aground as Democratic leaders sought to fold it into the larger bill instead of giving Portman the standalone vote he hoped for. Portman ended up voting against the bill, leaving Democrats livid.

He also opposed both of Trump’s impeachment trials, though he did work with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) on a compromise during the failed effort to start an independent Jan. 6 commission. As that effort fell apart, Portman stepped into his lead role with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) on funding roads, bridges and broadband.

Sinema described Portman as “super nerdy. And I mean that as a compliment.” She said she had no reservations about his ability to finish the legislation and get it into law.

“We were talking about this, like, kind of alone in his hideaway months ago," she recalled. "I don’t know why you would [walk away] if you weren’t interested in taking this to the finish line. He’s the one who is selling to his conference. And he will be the person that continues to do that.”

While Portman is leading a bipartisan group of 10 senators on infrastructure, some in the chamber are skeptical that rank-and-file members can replace the knowledge of committee chairs who might normally take the lead on a massive bill like this. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said that formula is “rife with a lot of problems.”

“When you have these negotiations and the gangs, there's no mechanism that forces people off of dead center and you're in pursuit of this mythical consensus," Cornyn said.

Should Portman strike a bipartisan deal, he will then have to ensure that Republicans sign on. Trump is growing increasingly vocal against the infrastructure talks and McConnell has yet to weigh in, only telling his caucus to view the bipartisan deal as separate from Democrats’ $3.5 trillion social spending package. Making matters harder for Portman, the Wall Street Journal editorial page recently described the infrastructure package as the “most one-sided bipartisan deal in decades.”

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said he didn’t know why any Republican “would be complicit” in cutting a deal on infrastructure knowing full well Democrats plan to pass a subsequent multitrillion-dollar spending bill on social programs, fighting climate change and raising taxes on the wealthy.

While acknowledging his balancing act is a difficult one, Portman said it was harder to talk across the aisle on health care, taxes or even on trade issues: “I’ve negotiated with China. I’ve been in much tougher negotiations.”

“This is difficult as all bipartisan negotiations are these days — more difficult than it used to be because both sides tend to go into their corners,” Portman said. “If it was health care, tax cuts, I’d feel differently about it. But this is infrastructure. At the end of the day, I think there’s enough interest, enough goodwill that we can get it done.”

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GOP support for bipartisan infrastructure deal going wobbly

Jerry Moran is one of 11 Republicans who endorsed the Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure framework. He also has plenty of concerns about it.

The Kansas Republican said the idea of using increased IRS enforcement to generate some of the nearly $600 billion in new spending “has some red flags among Republicans,” who have openly worried about being targeted by the Biden administration. Moran’s also concerned his vote for a bipartisan bill could help kick off a massive subsequent round of spending by Senate Democrats on party lines.

“Part of the motivation is trying to make certain that we don’t spend $6 trillion," Moran said on Monday evening. If "this is lending itself toward that outcome then I would no longer be a yes at that point in time."

Moran isn’t alone. Another of the framework’s supporters, Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), said at the moment he is not 100 percent committed to voting for the bipartisan plan.

“We don’t know what’s in it yet,” Rounds said. “I’m favorably impressed with what’s been done, but we’re going to wait and look at the final thing. So there’s still a lot of negotiations going on.”

Comments by those two technically supportive Republicans illustrates that, after a two-week recess, GOP support for an aisle-crossing deal with President Joe Biden is soft. The bipartisan infrastructure deal that five Senate Republicans helped sell to Biden is under harsh scrutiny from the right, testing the support of GOP centrists who will be crucial to getting the bill past a guaranteed filibuster.

The core of support from five senators that directly negotiated the deal with Democrats and the White House is solid: Mitt Romney of Utah, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Rob Portman of Ohio. A second group of GOP senators who support the concept will be critical to actually passing the bill.

Those senators include Moran, Rounds, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Todd Young of Indiana, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Richard Burr of North Carolina. Several of them are close to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is undecided and could help sink it.

“The details will matter. I think a lot of our members are going to look at: How credible are the pay-fors, how large is this?” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “For our members, it’s really going to come down to whether it’s all put on the debt.”

As a group of moderates in both parties drafts the nearly $1 trillion legislation, conservatives are bombarding it with attacks for using increased IRS enforcement as a financing mechanism. And as the bipartisan framework becomes more real ahead of a Senate vote as soon as next week, more Republicans are growing publicly concerned that it would clear the way for trillions more in spending on liberal priorities and tax increases.

And many Republicans say that the bill’s financing system, which also includes privatization of infrastructure, unused coronavirus aid and leftover unemployment benefits, may end up scoring poorly with the Congressional Budget Office. Once the bill is drafted, the CBO will calculate the bill's projected cost and revenue — and many in the GOP think that the mix of money for the new spending will come up short.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who tried and failed to clinch a separate infrastructure deal with Biden, said the bill’s finances “are a big question.” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said the bill’s funding mechanisms are “fundamental” to earning his support.

“There’s a big hole to fill and what I’ve seen so far doesn’t indicate they’ve filled it,” Cornyn said.

Despite high hopes for finishing up the legislative text this week and a potential floor vote the week of July 19, the drafting of the bill is likely to go into next week.

In addition to the policy concerns, former President Donald Trump has repeatedly attacked the deal and the Republican senators behind it — many of whom voted to convict him in his impeachment trial — accusing them of being “played with, and used by” Democrats. At least 10 Republicans would have to support the deal over Trump’s objections. Moran, who is up for reelection next year and has Trump’s endorsement, said he was not familiar with Trump’s opposition.

Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said Trump’s criticism of Republican senators “was a little bit misplaced.”

“The sense I got from his messages was that it was aimed more at Mitch to some degree, [and] calling the Republican senators weak for signing onto it,“ Cramer said.

Despite Trump’s attack on McConnell, Democrats suspect that the GOP leader is actually seeking to hamper their plans, particularly after he said he’s entirely focused on standing up to Biden’s agenda. If McConnell were to pull his party out of those talks, it would force Democrats to move their entire agenda through budget reconciliation. Portman gave leadership an update on the status of the bill during a closed-door leadership meeting Monday, according to an attendee.

“That’s really the test, whether they’ll stick with this,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) of his GOP colleagues.

Durbin said despite cries of foul from his GOP colleagues over Democrats’ plans to pass the rest of Biden’s agenda without the GOP, that it’s a “fair” path to take. Republicans tried to use budget reconciliation twice during Trump’s presidency, cutting taxes successfully and falling short of repealing Obamacare in 2017.

Moran doesn’t see it that way. He joined the bipartisan efforts in part to blunt Democrats’ efforts at passing a party-line spending bill. And he’s prepared to walk away if it comes to that.

“I want to be involved and engaged in that effort, but I’m still troubled by … the statements of Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi,” Moran said. “It still doesn’t seem the right negotiating tactic to say: I’ll support a bipartisan plan only as long as I get a vote on everything else I want.”

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Democrats confront failure on elections strategy

After months of build-up, Democrats are boxed in on their party’s signature election reform plan. And there’s no apparent escape route.

Senate Republicans blocked Democrats’ sweeping ethics and elections legislation on Tuesday, a filibuster that many in President Joe Biden’s party hoped would turbocharge the demise of the chamber’s 60-vote threshold for most bills. But Democratic moderates’ support of the filibuster has only hardened in recent days, culminating in an emphatic defense of the supermajority requirement by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) on the eve of Tuesday’s vote.

Liberals eager to change the minds of Sinema, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and nearly a dozen other senators reluctant to eliminate or reform the filibuster had staked their success on a series of Republican blockades on former President Donald Trump’s impeachment, a Jan. 6 commission, equal pay standards and most notably, the elections bill dubbed “S1.”

In today’s 50-50 Senate, Democrats would need every single one of their members to vote in favor of any changes to the rules, and there is no sign that’s close to happening.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema speaks at the at the hearing on Type 1 Diabetes at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on July 10, 2019 in Washington, DC.

It gets worse for Biden’s party: Now that the GOP has rejected debating the legislation that would overhaul federal elections, Democrats are without a new strategy to show party activists some momentum before the 2022 midterms. At the moment, the party doesn't have a backup plan on elections and Democratic senators acknowledged their internal maneuvering over the filibuster has only begun after months of dominating their time in control of Washington.

“There doesn’t seem to be much of a path to getting any Republican votes on voting reforms. So what does that leave?” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “It leaves a conversation in the caucus about whether you want to give Republicans the authority to continue to strip away from people the right to vote.”

Democratic leaders have told members that Tuesday’s vote is only the beginning of the discussion, not the end. And some Senate Democrats took it as a positive sign that all 50 members of the caucus — including Manchin — were united in Tuesday’s vote.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer did not detail next steps during Tuesday’s private caucus meeting, according to an attendee. But later on the floor, he said that Democrats will “have several, serious options for how to reconsider this issue" and "are going to explore every last one.”

Many in his caucus are desperate to find a path forward. “A body that won’t defend itself from an internal attack hardly deserves the name of a U.S. Senate,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). “No consequences for Trump, no impeachment, no censure, no January 6 commission ... no agreement on voting rights.”

Potential backup plans after the filibuster include breaking up the elections bill into pieces to force more votes on the GOP or waiting until the fall to push a voting-rights-specific bill. Democrats could also put elections spending in a party-line budget reconciliation bill.

But on Tuesday evening success looked far off, even as Democrats vowed not to give up after Schumer promised that “failure is not an option.” Vice President Kamala Harris told reporters that “the fight is not over.”

In the meantime, the Senate is left with a handful of bipartisan gangs negotiating critical legislation on infrastructure and policing — and a lot of angry progressives who want to exercise their party’s power while they still have full control of Congress.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was among those perplexed by Sinema’s latest defense of minority-party rights in the chamber. While Sinema said the “filibuster compels moderation,” Warren argues that “the filibuster as it’s currently used is giving Republicans a veto.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on the IRS budget request on Capitol Hill in Washington, on June 8, 2021.

“We’re talking about voting, which is a fundamental right, and the friction between rights and a rule that’s not even in the Constitution,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.). “I would hope we would at least consider a rifle shot here of dealing specifically with voting rights and the fact that those should be inviolate.”

Progressives had long viewed the elections bill as the vehicle for Democrats to scrap the legislative filibuster. But Republicans didn’t block a bill this Congress until May 28, instead working with Democrats on water infrastructure, a new hate crimes law and competitiveness legislation. With that in mind, Democratic moderates on Tuesday suggested that despite the GOP blockade on elections legislation, they still aren’t prepared to kill the filibuster.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) demurred when asked if his mind has changed, while Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) predicted that the conversation surrounding the filibuster “will pick up speed.”

"When you talk about something again and again and again in a hypothetical sense, it's never the same as when you're actually talking about it and the reality's upon you,” Hickenlooper said after the vote.

But with such stern opposition from Manchin and Sinema to touching the filibuster rules, it doesn’t appear there’s much incentive for other members of the Democratic caucus to begin calling for easing or elimination of the 60-vote requirement. Sinema has asked for a Senate debate on the legislative filibuster and members of the caucus say the party is likely to have one, albeit internally.

Some Democrats, Manchin included, aren’t going to give up on trying to round up Republican votes for elections legislation. Thus far, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is endorsing a voting rights bill named for the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and said she supports expanding early and absentee voting as well.

Democrats are skeptical that much will come of that.

“Sen. Manchin and several other members of the caucus want to earnestly try to engage Republicans to say: Is there no way that we can work together on voting rights?” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who is close to many Senate Republicans. “I do not see a serious interest or enthusiasm in improving access to the ballot among Republicans.”

Democrats need nine more Republicans to join Murkowski. And GOP leaders say their members are cool to doing so.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has panned a slimmed-down elections bill sought by Manchin. And even more modest reforms are likely to meet the same fate that Democrats’ sweeping bill met on Tuesday.

“I don’t think there’s anything I’ve seen yet that doesn’t fundamentally change the way states conduct elections. It’s sort of a line in the sand for most of our members,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.).

Senate Rules Committee Chair Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) announced that her next step will include field hearings on elections laws, starting in Georgia. Schumer also vowed Tuesday that Democrats would bring up the issue for debate again.

“We will not let it go,” he said. “This voter suppression cannot stand. And we are going to work tirelessly to see that it does not stand.”

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Republicans pray for truce after Trump attacks on McConnell

Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell's relationship simply can’t go on like this for Senate Republicans.

Though the Senate GOP is tantalizingly close to retaking the majority next year and largely united in opposition to President Joe Biden’s agenda, the ongoing feud between the former president and the Senate minority leader has decayed to an entirely untenable place. Trump’s insult-laden diatribe against McConnell this weekend signals that the GOP could splinter badly in primaries next year — and raises the question of whether McConnell and Trump can work together at all.

In theory, the two Republicans could be back serving together in fewer than four years. But not if Trump keeps calling McConnell a “dumb son of a bitch” and a “stone-cold loser.”

“We’ve got issues as a party, with the demographic trends going against us, and we don’t have a lot of margin for error,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), observing that the Trump-McConnell feud is still in “full flare” at the moment. “When it comes to the infighting politically, I don’t know how that can help — when you’re scrapping on the margins, when you’re trying to win states, and especially national elections.”

The feud is mostly one-sided as of late; McConnell barely utters Trump’s name these days and has no communication with the former president. Still, several high-ranking senators said on Monday evening that Trump and McConnell need to reach an understanding of some sort or perhaps even resume speaking to each other, which at the moment seems unthinkable.

“Hopefully there will be some sort of truce,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune. “It’s in everybody’s best interest — including the former president, if he wants to continue to stay viable politically — to help us win the majority in 2022. And that means working with Senate Republicans, and not against them.”

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), the No. 5 leader, said she hoped “at some point” Trump and McConnell could even reconcile.

“We really need to come together, both Leader McConnell and President Trump,” Ernst said. “We just need to have good discourse within the Republican Party right now.”

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 21: Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) speaks during a news conference regarding court packing on Capitol Hill on October 21, 2020 in Washington, DC. Last year, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) introduced S.J.Res. 14, which would provide a constitutional amendment that would limit the United States Supreme Court to nine justices. (Photo by Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images)

The Kentucky Republican declined to respond to Trump’s criticisms on Monday evening, but will almost certainly be asked about them again Tuesday at his weekly news conference. And Trump upped the ante later Monday, with a statement about the Supreme Court in which he said: “With leaders like Mitch McConnell, they are helpless to fight. He didn’t fight for the Presidency, and he won’t fight for the Court.”

Trump and McConnell have feuded before, of course, mostly in 2017 during the early days of the former's presidency. Trump leaned on McConnell to kill the legislative filibuster (McConnell refused) and criticized the GOP leader for the party's failure to repeal Obamacare. The two later repaired their relationship by focusing on the federal bench and collaborating on Senate races, though their alliance evaporated after McConnell recognized Biden’s presidential win in December.

The rift has accelerated since then, fueled primarily by Trump’s lies about the election, his actions during the Jan. 6 riot and his subsequent delay in calling off his supporters after they stormed the Capitol. McConnell harshly condemned Trump this year for having “fed lies” to his voters in his efforts to overturn the election and indicated openness to convicting Trump in his impeachment trial.

Ultimately McConnell acquitted Trump while excoriating him for a “dereliction of duty” in failing to defend the Capitol. The Senate GOP leader further vowed to nominate mainstream candidates who can win general elections in key races, regardless of the former president's opinion. Notably, Trump has so far endorsed a slate of incumbent GOP senators, several of whom disagreed with his efforts to contest the election.

He has not endorsed Thune, however, and openly opposes Sen. Lisa Murkowski's (R-Alaska) reelection. Future GOP Senate primaries in states like Georgia, North Carolina, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Missouri and Ohio offer more opportunities for intraparty conflict.

“The way this is going to play out is, there will be primaries. And President Trump presumably will pick his person. It could well be the same person that we would want to see nominated. But in the end, it’s about who is electable in the general election,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a close McConnell ally.

Trump’s latest series of disses, including blaming McConnell for losing January's Georgia Senate runoffs and mishandling the latest series of pandemic stimulus checks, obscures what’s otherwise a united GOP at the moment. No Republicans in Congress supported Biden’s coronavirus bill earlier this year, and it appears none of them will support Biden’s still-nascent infrastructure plan.

You'd hardly be able to tell that from the impression given by Trump's slamming of McConnell. The ongoing tension risks miring their party in division, projecting the appearance of a hopeless split between McConnell’s more establishment vision and Trump’s chaotic, controversy-driven conservatism.

“This is how I look at it: They’re both big boys,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who conceded that the episode is “not helpful” to Republicans. “They’re both aiming for the same ends, which is a good result in 2022. But they’ll be able to figure it out.”

HIALEAH, FLORIDA - NOVEMBER 05:  Florida governor and Republican senatorial candidate Rick Scott addresses the crowd as he attends a Get out the Vote Rally at AmeriKooler on November 05, 2018 in Hialeah, Florida. Governor Scott is facing off against Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) on election day. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Republicans are relying on National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Rick Scott to help litigate the dispute. Scott spent the weekend at the GOP donor retreat with Trump and presented him with the “NRSC Champion for Freedom Award.” The Floridian also said the McConnell-Trump rift has not yet hurt the NRSC’s fundraising.

Some Republicans are betting that opposition to Biden’s agenda will be enough to unify voters. Concerns about the icy relationship between the former president and the GOP leader, they argue, are overblown.

Scott, for one, laughed off Trump’s latest coarse attack: “I’ve had a lot of experience with Sen. McConnell. I think he’s one of the smartest SOBs I know.”

“At least we have a Mitch McConnell and we have a Donald Trump,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). “The party cannot be successful without Donald Trump, and Donald Trump cannot be successful without the Republican Party.”

But Republicans can't quite grin their way through the current schism. Just this year, Trump asked donors to give to his own political group instead of GOP campaign committees. And McConnell takes intense interest in pivotal Senate races, maneuvering to anoint his preferred candidates and make strategic decisions about where to engage.

So it’s easy to see how continued discord will hinder the GOP’s efforts to take back the Senate majority next year. That’s why Republicans are ready for the Trump and Mitch Show to wrap up its latest plot line.

“We’ve got other challenges right now. Anything we can do to work together, the better off we’re going to be,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), who described himself as “very disappointed” to learn of Trump’s comments about McConnell. “We’ve got bigger fish to fry.”

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Senate GOP gripped by conviction vote intrigue

Six GOP senators voted this week to move forward with President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial. But Republicans believe several more of them may be considering conviction.

As the Trump defense made its argument on Friday, Republicans privately estimated between 5 and 10 of their senators are seriously weighing conviction. There’s no official whip count, and the matter is not being discussed at party meetings, leaving many in the 50-member conference to only guess at their colleague’s inclinations.

In the past, many Republicans have backed down when flirting to break with Trump, and the safe bet for most in the party is still on acquittal. But at the moment there’s an outside chance that one or more GOP senators could deliver Washington a dramatic last-act twist as the Senate prepares to vote as early as Saturday.

“I could see it as possible. I certainly don’t know how many there could be. Certainly not enough for conviction,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D).

Granted anonymity to discuss internal politics, a GOP senator said it would be surprising to see more than six Republicans vote to convict but conceded everyone was blindly guessing at the vote count: "That's the nature of surprises."

Any Republican voting to convict the president would make huge waves, even if the tally falls far short of 17 GOP senators needed to secure a conviction, as is nearly assured. The 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach the president last month are all facing various degrees of blowback, from censure to early primary challenges.

The Trump legal team began shoring things up on Friday after a disastrous start earlier this week. Even Republicans plainly at odds with Trump said the defense had stepped up its game.

But the question and answer portion did not enthuse the GOP's swing votes. After praising a "stronger presentation" from the defense, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) conceded she did not get an answer to her question about when Trump learned of the Capitol breach, which Democrats also subsequently asked after the defense's non-answer.

"There was a better attempt at the second time. But yeah, I didn't really feel it was responsive to our question," Murkowski said.

And a photograph of Sen. Bill Cassidy's notes Friday afternoon suggested that despite his criticism earlier this week of Trump's lawyers, he is leaning towards acquittal. A spokesperson for the Louisiana Republican tweeted that he has not yet made up his mind.

Cassidy also asked a pointed question about whether Trump was concerned for former Vice President Mike Pence's well-being when Trump tweeted an attack on Pence. Trump's lawyer Michael van der Veen called the questioned based in "hearsay" despite an account from Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) about the timing of Trump's tweet. Cassidy said on Friday night that did not really answer his question.

"I didn't think it was a very good answer," he said.

In his closing argument, Trump attorney Bruce Castor defended Trump's rhetoric by pointing out he had been threatening senators with primary threats during his speech on Jan. 6. It was a reminder of how a vote for conviction will play in the GOP.

"Nobody in this chamber is anxious to have a primary challenge. That is one truism I think I can say with some certainty. But that's the way we operate in this country," Castor said. Murkowski is up for reelection next year.

GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Mitt Romney of Utah, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Cassidy and Murkowski are all on record deeming the trial constitutional, making them the base of Republicans considering conviction. Cassidy changed his opinion on constitutionality since last month, saying the House Democrats made an effective presentation.

In addition, Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Richard Burr of North Carolina are being watched closely by their colleagues. Both are retiring next year, along with Toomey — in theory relieving them of political considerations.

“I’m not going to even talk about it until it’s done,” Burr said Friday. Asked if it was fair to say he was genuinely undecided, he responded: “It’s fair to say I’m not going to talk to you about it at all.”

Portman said Friday evening that he is "still listening" but has "the same concerns about the wisdom of us taking up a impeachment conviction for a former official, particularly a former president."

"I've had that issue all along and I haven't been convinced otherwise yet," the Ohio Republican said. "I thought the due process concerns today were also concerning. On the other hand I think what the president did that day was wrong."

Republicans still see no path for Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell to vote to convict, but he has not told colleagues that he is surely an acquittal. He’s repeatedly told Republicans that the final vote, likely Saturday, is one of “conscience.” And since criticizing Trump in January, he’s said little about the matter at all.

A vote to convict Trump would seriously complicate McConnell’s ability to lead the party heading into the midterm elections.

McConnell, Portman and Burr all voted twice in recent weeks that the trial should not go forward.

Although Republicans meet every day in-person, it’s not to mull over conviction votes. In fact, there’s been no coordination among the senators who have voted to find the trial constitutional, Murkowski said.

“I know that there’s a lot of speculation that there’s kind of a shared discussion about ‘What are you going to do?’ That’s just not the case,” she said.

During last year’s impeachment trial, all eyes were on whether moderate Democrats might acquit Trump. But the real surprise was Romney, who revealed his decision to convict Trump in an emotional speech just hours before his final vote. He’s declined to reveal where he will end up this time, too, saying he will weigh the defense’s arguments.

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Chuck Schumer’s 99 problems

Chuck Schumer has finally realized his dream of becoming majority leader. And given the circumstances, it’s a bit of a nightmare.

Schumer is facing down a hard-nosed Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is refusing to cut a deal to govern the 50-50 Senate without a commitment to protecting the filibuster. He must marshal Donald Trump’s impeachment trial through the Senate while also trying to get President Joe Biden’s Cabinet confirmed. And he has to figure out how to respond to a crippling pandemic and struggling economy while Republicans have already rejected Biden’s relief proposal.

Even within his own party Schumer faces competing pressures, with moderates hopeful for bipartisan consensus and some liberals agitating for him to show McConnell won’t control the Democratic agenda. McConnell’s focus on the filibuster has only heightened progressives’ alarm that the chamber’s 60-vote threshold could stifle the party’s ambitions. What’s more, Schumer himself is up for reelection next year and could face a long-shot primary challenge.

“Leader Schumer is standing strong and that’s exactly what he needs to do,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who serves on Schumer’s leadership team. “Mitch McConnell seems to think he’s going to get a veto over everything that happens the next four years. And he’s wrong.”

Schumer has had little time to prepare: Democrats didn’t win the majority until the Georgia runoffs in January. And the day Schumer learned he got the job, the Capitol was invaded by pro-Trump rioters. His time to soak in the good news was limited to just a few hours.

That timeline has meant a crash course in leading the Senate alongside a Democratic White House and House. Schumer is battle-tested from overseeing a generally united minority during the Trump years, though maintaining unity as majority leader is always more challenging.

And with McConnell holding out on the Senate's organizing resolution, the degree of difficulty for Schumer has become that much higher.

“It’s unprecedented, really,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the No. 3 Democrat. “We’ve had the perfect storm.”

“Sen. McConnell’s been the minority leader before. Sen. Schumer has never been majority leader,” added Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of GOP leadership. “One is coming at this with a little more time to think about what exactly that job entails than the other one.”

Schumer so far is making it clear that he’s not caving to McConnell’s demand to include protecting the legislative filibuster as part of any power sharing agreement. During a private caucus call Thursday, Schumer told members he was optimistic that he’d reach a deal with McConnell, according to a source on the call.

On the floor on Friday, he called McConnell's proposal "unacceptable." He also spurned McConnell's request for a delay of Trump's trial into mid-February, then later in the day reached a deal with the GOP Leader to begin the trial the week of Feb. 8.

Those moves have been seen within the caucus as a sign of strength.

“Chuck Schumer will continue to refuse to allow the minority to dictate how the majority is going to operate,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.).

Meanwhile, the pressure on Schumer from the left to scrap the filibuster is only increasing as Republicans dig in for big policy fights with the new Democratic majority.

Just Democracy, a coalition of more than 40 minority-led organizations, is launching ads in New York’s Times Square calling on Schumer to eliminate the filibuster, according to details first shared with POLITICO. The ad urges Schumer to “abolish the filibuster” and quotes Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) describing it as “a cherished tool of segregationists.”

Separately, Fix Our Senate, a group created to target McConnell, is also running a full-page ad with other advocates in this weekend's New York Times calling for the elimination of the filibuster. Senate Republicans say Schumer is facing an early squeeze between the bipartisan bromides of Biden and the voices in his own party pushing him to run over Republicans as quickly as possible.

“What [Schumer] wants to do is have this hang over our heads like a sword of Damocles for some future event and I think it’s smart to get this matter resolved on the front end,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a close McConnell ally. “I understand, too, the political pressure that President Biden and Schumer have with the progressives and looking at getting primaried by AOC.”

But even if Schumer wanted to get rid of the filibuster, he’d have to overcome objections from moderates and possibly Biden himself.

Schumer’s immediate top three priorities are filling Biden’s Cabinet, conducting the impeachment trial and passing a big coronavirus relief package. But Republicans have resisted each of those to varying degrees, despite Biden’s hopes of working with the GOP.

At some point, Democrats may grow frustrated enough to scrap the filibuster. But for now the fallback plan on a stimulus measure is budget reconciliation, which evades the supermajority requirement but comes with some limits.

“I think we work through the committees until we can’t,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a progressive senator poised to take over the Banking Committee. “We keep trying until it doesn’t work. And then we do reconciliation.”

Democrats say that they have no illusions about McConnell. But they’re also hoping that his personal relationship with Biden may lead to more cooperation than under former President Barack Obama. McConnell so far has worked with Democrats to ensure Biden’s national security nominees are confirmed, although the pace lags behind most previous presidents .

“We have a feeling that he does have a good personal relationship with Biden that’s going to be helpful,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who shrugged off McConnell’s attempt to influence Schumer in his early days as majority leader. “Chuck’s negotiating from a position of strength right now.”

The fact that McConnell asked for a longer delay on the trial as well as concessions on how to run the Senate smacks to some Democrats as McConnell still trying to be majority leader, even though now it’s Schumer’s time. Just as Schumer's adjusting to leading the majority, Democrats say it may take some time for McConnell to take his hands off the wheel.

“I know it’s hard for him to settle into his new role, but you can’t be the majority leader if you’re the minority leader,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).

Laura Barrón-López contributed to this report.

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