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Inside Mitch McConnell’s Reluctant Preparation for Impeachment

It is obvious to all that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is still trying — against all odds and with little prospect of success — to keep the impeachment of President Donald Trump off his agenda for as long as possible. “This whole issue, as far as I’m concerned, is a House issue,” McConnell told reporters this week, when asked about how he was preparing for impeachment’s arrival in his chamber. “If the House does in fact act, the Senate will be in business with an impeachment trial.”

In normal times, McConnell’s to-do list in the Senate would be a challenge. In the era of impeachment, it’s a high-wire act of the first order. The wily Kentuckian has been tied up trying to push across the finish line a spending plan to keep the government’s doors open through September, a defense bill that would give the Pentagon a pay raise and, if the stars align perfectly, a rewrite of the NAFTA trade deal. Each is a weighty endeavor that requires intense attention from its disparate backers and at least a few Democratic votes.

Democrats, meanwhile, are insisting the raft of measures also include money for election security to curb any potential interference on the Russians’ behalf, a move Republicans say is extraneous to the Pentagon budget. And, for his part, Trump is signaling that he might not sign some of those big-ticket items unless he also is guaranteed funding for his wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, a non-starter for Democrats.

But the i-word looms over everything on Capitol Hill these days, and it’s become deeply personal to Trump. On Wednesday, Senators — who will serve as jurors in a trial if the House votes to impeach the President — got the order they were expecting: Clear your calendars for January. The directive came during a meeting of Senate Republicans, where White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, congressional liaison Eric Ueland, former-Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and ex-Treasury Department spokesman Tony Saygeh updated lawmakers on Trump’s mindset, preferences and flash points. Cipollone, who took the lead during the meeting and is expected to helm the White House’s defense, repeated the administration’s position that the impeachment lacks merit.

Meanwhile, lawmakers urgently need to move ahead with a spending plan or the government will run out of money next Friday — Dec. 20 — unless Congress and the White House can agree on a way forward. That same urgency, though, works against McConnell’s ambitious agenda. House and Senate leaders alike anticipate the House will first pass a spending plan before the deadline and then move quickly into its articles of impeachment. The one-two punch may prove too much for Trump; if he lumps impeachment with other goals, things will get ugly fast.

Republicans are putting the onus on Democrats to fall in line to avoid a crisis. “It’s going to require cooperation from Democrats to get through this year-end agenda: to get the spending bill done, to get the [United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement] done, to get the defense authorization done,” said Sen. John Thune, the Senate’s number-two Republican. “I hope they’ll see past impeachment.”

But the Senate’s top Democrat, Sen. Chuck Schumer, says it’s on Republicans to curb Trump’s demands. “He hasn’t learned his lessons. If President Trump doesn’t sit down with us and negotiate a bill, we will have a second Trump shutdown,” Schumer said, invoking last year’s 35-day shutdown over wall funding that never came. “It’s laughable that Republicans can blame Democrats when they know darned well that, on the appropriations process, it’s President Trump who is holding everything up and making the chances of a shutdown a little more real than anybody would like.”

For his part, McConnell, who has total control over the Senate agenda and calendar, is still publicly musing that perhaps the House will decide not to impeach Trump after all. “We’re going to have to decide — once we get this matter from the House, if we do — how we’re going to handle it,” McConnell told reporters on Tuesday.

McConnell says he is weighing his options for how his chamber deals with the almost inevitable impeachment arrival. The easiest path would be for McConnell and his Democratic counterpart, Schumer, to privately agree to a set of rules to govern both sides. So far, according to McConnell and Schumer alike, they haven’t even begun those talks.

A second option for running the Senate process would be adopting a rules package, which requires 51 Senators’ votes. Right now, Republicans have 53 seats — meaning a party-line vote could be sufficient to set the roadmap for a trial. Some Republicans fret that starting the trial from such a partisan posture will sully its credibility. Others argue that members like Susan Collins and Mitt Romney are unlikely to join an effort to protect Trump solely on partisan lines. (During Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial in 1999, the Senate adopted a unanimous rules package after closed-door talks.)

The third option, to McConnell’s mind, would be the most chaotic: Senators could decide, in real-time, the rules through a series of motions offered from the floor of the Senate. Senators don’t expect Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who would preside over a Senate trial, to take an activist role; McConnell suggested Roberts would be a “passive” participant and put the motions to votes among Senators, who would need 51 votes to adopt an idea put forward from the Senate floor. While this would presumably be the most democratic trial format, it also is the most unpredictable and unwieldy — and, perhaps most importantly for Trump, dangerous for the President should things spiral out of control. “It’s kind of a jump ball,” McConnell said, describing the motions option.

Nevertheless, it is drawing interest from the President and his advisers, who believe the format would allow Senators or White House lawyers to call witnesses who previously were not heard from, in particular Hunter and Joe Biden, who Trump believes, without evidence, are at heart of a corruption scheme in Ukraine. Speaking to reporters in London on Tuesday, Trump said this option may offer a chance for officials in his administration to testify in a “fair” environment, given a Republican majority.

Asked about Trump’s statements that he wants to call witnesses such as acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Energy Secretary Rick Perry during the Senate trial, McConnell was characteristically cool. “I don’t have any advice to give the President about the way they want to handle the representation,” McConnell said.

Thus has been McConnell’s posture since Trump took office: asked repeatedly about impeachment, McConnell ducks with skill. “There is no answer at the moment,” McConnell said when pressed for details about the Senate’s preparation this week. “I haven’t answered your question because there is no answer at this point.” Soon, there may have to be.

Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com.

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