WASHINGTON -- The Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump began in earnest Tuesday with a tussle between Republicans and Democrats over whether witnesses should be called immediately, a question that is all but certain to remain unresolved until after the first phase of the trial, when the two sides present their arguments.
Democrats plan to force several votes Tuesday afternoon on subpoenaing witnesses -- votes that Republicans have pledged to band together to defeat.
"Republicans have the votes to start the trial" without witnesses, as occurred in the 1999 Senate impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, said Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D. "Beyond that will be informed by what happens."
A handful of Senate Republicans say they are open to considering witnesses after the first phase of the trial -- after both Trump's legal team and House Democrats, acting as prosecutors, get time to present their cases to senators and respond to senators' written questions. But even they -- including Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah -- have no problem with the initial rules Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will offer Tuesday afternoon despite some differences between this year's rules and those offered during the Clinton trial, such as 24 hours of arguments stuffed into two days instead of three.
The 47 Senate Democrats would have to convince four Republicans to support their effort to subpoena witnesses or the effort would fail, meaning the trial could wrap up in far less time than Clinton's five-week trial, which ended with his acquittal.
Although it appears a near certainty that Democrats won't have the 67 votes needed to convict Trump and remove him from office, the possibility of four Republicans bucking their party to issue subpoenas has added a huge sense of uncertainty to the trial.
Trump is charged with two articles of impeachment. The first, for abusing his power, concerns his efforts last year to pressure the government of Ukraine to dig up dirt on a political opponent, Joe Biden, by withholding congressionally approved military aid and a White House meeting. The second, for obstruction of Congress, focuses on his directions to aides not to testify or provide documents to the House impeachment inquiry.
The first order of business Tuesday will be a vote on McConnell's proposed outline for the trial. That vote is expected to take place by the end of the day.
Under the proposed rules, beginning Wednesday, the House would have 24 hours over two days to make its case, followed by 24 hours over two days for the president's team. Senators then would have 16 hours to ask questions of both parties.
From there, the Senate would move to the pivotal question of whether witnesses and documents should be subpoenaed.