The cause of this uncertainty is a tectonic shift in the Republican Party—not as large as one might hope or expect, given what occurred on January 6, but still enough to shake up impeachment. Last fall, only a few members of Congress in both chambers crossed party lines. Three House Democrats voted against impeachment, and one almost immediately became a Republican. One former Republican representative voted to impeach, but he’d already had to leave the party over his criticism of President Trump. In the Senate, only Republican Senator Mitt Romney broke ranks.
Today, however, 10 House Republicans voted to impeach. Most prominently, Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 Republican in the caucus, has been an outspoken advocate of the move. Meanwhile, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy—who took part in attempts to overturn the election on January 6—opposed impeachment, but did not whip his members’ votes, and warned Republicans not to attack colleagues who support impeachment, for fear it could put their lives in danger.
These Republican votes made the impeachment the most bipartisan in history, but they did not change the outcome. The real action will be in the Senate. Once again, the odds that Trump will be convicted seem long, but this time, Republicans are much more open to the question. Conviction requires a two-thirds vote. (If Trump were convicted, it is likely he would also be barred from holding office in the future, which would require only a majority of the Senate in a second vote.)
Yesterday evening, The New York Times reported that McConnell “has concluded that President Trump committed impeachable offenses and believes that Democrats’ move to impeach him will make it easier to purge Mr. Trump from the party.” Other outlets matched that reporting; Axios says McConnell is in fact leaning toward conviction. (His wife, former Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, resigned from the administration after the attempted coup.) In a letter to colleagues today, however, McConnell said he had not made a decision about how to vote.
Parsing these reports is difficult. Such stories don’t get out without McConnell and people around him wanting them out, for whatever reason. The powerful Republican leader is sending a message, but it isn’t clear what he’s signaling, or to whom. McConnell’s support for conviction would be essential to any effort to convict. While the past month has already shown the cracks in his normally rock-solid control, the 17 Republicans needed to convict will not break ranks without his go-ahead, but his support might encourage senators who have long disliked or even loathed Trump privately to turn on him publicly.
Don’t hold your breath, though. There’s a gap the size of the Red River Gorge between McConnell world releasing trial balloons and the senator publicly stating his support for removal, much less actively encouraging colleagues to join him. But senators who turn on Trump might find themselves pushing on an open door. While Trump’s loyal supporters are furious over the second impeachment, the White House itself seems paralyzed. The president, rendered practically speechless by the suspension of his Twitter account, has said almost nothing, and there’s been no media blitz by what’s left of the rest of his administration. The Washington Post reports that the White House counsel is not preparing for impeachment, and that the president’s legislative-affairs team is not contacting lawmakers.