WASHINGTON — Sen. Susan Collins of Maine joined all Democrats and just four other Republicans on Tuesday to reject an attempt to dismiss Donald Trump’s historic second impeachment trial in a vote that foreshadows that there may not be enough votes to convict him.
The 55-45 procedural vote to set aside an objection from Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul puts the Senate on record as declaring the proceedings constitutional and means the trial on Trump’s impeachment, the first ever of a former president, will begin as scheduled the week of Feb. 8. The House impeached him two weeks ago for inciting deadly riots in the Capitol on Jan. 6 when he told his supporters to “fight like hell” to overturn his election defeat.
At the same time, it shows it is unlikely there will be enough votes for conviction, which requires the support of all Democrats and 17 Republicans, or two-thirds of the Senate. While most Republicans criticized Trump after the attack, many of them have rushed to defend him in the trial, showing the former president’s enduring sway over the party.
Only five Republicans — Collins, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania — voted with Democrats to let the trial proceed. They have been among the former president’s fiercest critics since the riots and look most likely to vote to convict him. If they do, they are unlikely to be joined by many more Republicans as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, voted with the majority of his caucus on Tuesday.
Both Collins and Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, are among a group of 30 senators who have not said how they would vote on removal. But King has supported the Democratic impeachment effort while Collins has adhered to a long-held policy of not commenting on the merit of an ongoing impeachment process. She has said Trump incited the riot, but she has criticized Democrats for rushing the proceedings and has voted twice against removing a president.
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“If we dismiss this action based on a lack of jurisdiction, we would create a precedent under which a future president could avoid disqualification simply by waiting for the closing days of his term to engage in misconduct,” she said in a Tuesday statement.
The senators took oaths Tuesday to ensure “impartial justice” as jurors in the trial, proceedings that will test Republican loyalty to the former president for the first time after the deadly siege at the U.S. Capitol. Many Republican senators, including Paul, have challenged the legitimacy of the trial and questioned whether Trump’s repeated demands to overturn Joe Biden’s election really constitute “incitement of insurrection.”
What seemed for some Democrats like an open-and-shut case played out for the world on live television is running into a Republican Party that feels very different. Not only are there legal concerns, but senators are wary of crossing the former president and his legions of followers. Security remains tight at the Capitol.
On Monday, the nine House Democrats prosecuting the case against Trump carried the sole impeachment charge of “incitement of insurrection” across the Capitol in a solemn and ceremonial march along the same halls the rioters ransacked three weeks ago.
The lead House prosecutor, Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, stood before the Senate to describe the violent events of Jan. 6 — five people died — and read the House resolution charging “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Republicans came to Trump’s legal defense. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Trump has already been held to account: “One way in our system you get punished is losing an election.”
For Democrats the tone, tenor and length of the trial so early in Biden’s presidency poses a challenge, forcing them to strike a balance between their vow to hold Trump accountable and their eagerness to deliver on the new administration’s priorities following their sweep of control of the House, Senate and White House.
Chief Justice John Roberts is not presiding as he did during Trump’s first impeachment, potentially affecting the gravitas of the proceedings. The shift is said to be in keeping with protocol because Trump is no longer in office. Instead, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D- Vt., who serves in the largely ceremonial role of Senate president pro tempore, was sworn in on Tuesday.
Leaders in both parties agreed to a short delay in the proceedings, which serves their political and practical interests, even as National Guard troops remain at the Capitol because of security threats to lawmakers ahead of the trial.
The start date gives Trump’s new legal team time to prepare its case, while also providing more than a month’s distance from the passions of the bloody riot. For the Democratic-led Senate, the intervening weeks provide prime time to confirm some of Biden’s key Cabinet nominees.
As Republicans said the trial is not legitimate, Democrats rejected that argument, pointing to an 1876 impeachment of a secretary of war who had already resigned and to opinions by many legal scholars. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, said failing to try Trump would amount to a “get-out-jail-free card” for others accused of wrongdoing late in their terms.
Story by Lisa Mascaro and Mary Clare Jalonick. Bangor Daily News writer Michael Shepherd and Associated Press writer Hope Yen contributed to this report.