Who Plays by the Rules?

Senators Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer provide a revealing look at today’s rubber-and-glue politics.

Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer stand back-to-back.
Erin Schaff / AP

The two men sit barely six feet apart, stationed across the Senate chamber’s center aisle, but they seldom cast so much as a sidelong glance each other’s way. Sometimes, they actually lean to opposite sides, as if their souls were repellent magnets. They speak to each other—if at all—only through the mediation of Chief Justice John Roberts.

As the impeachment trial into President Donald Trump gets under way, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Democratic counterpart, Chuck Schumer, personify the polarized politics playing out before them—or, perhaps, because of them. Now, just two days into the trial, their dysfunctional relationship has turned a proceeding that is by its nature adversarial into a sulfurous show.

Schumer kept the Senate in session until just before 2 a.m. this morning, forcing votes on 10 procedural amendments to compel witness testimony and documentary evidence from the White House and other executive-branch agencies (and another to extend the timetable for trial motions), even though McConnell had long ago made it clear that he had the necessary numbers to defeat each one. As the hours ticked by, and amendment after amendment failed on the same 53–47 party-line vote, McConnell, like a weary spouse, asked Roberts whether Schumer might be willing to “stack” his remaining proposals into a single vote.

“The bottom line is very simple,” Schumer answered, after Roberts gave him permission, “as has been clear to every senator and the country: We believe witnesses and documents are extremely important, and a compelling case has been made for them. We will have votes on all of those.” Schumer went on to complain that McConnell himself had deviated from his initial promise to model the rules for this impeachment on those that governed Bill Clinton’s 21 years ago, and had sprung the final version on the Democrats only moments before the trial began. “So there will be a good number of votes,” he allowed.

Within the genteel parameters of Senate decorum, it was Schumer’s gritted-teeth way of reminding McConnell of payback’s high price. Indeed, when I asked a veteran Democratic Senate aide to explain the source of McConnell and Schumer’s mutual animosity, his answer was immediate and succinct.

“Merrick Garland, Merrick Garland, Merrick Garland,” said Jim Manley, who was a top aide to Senators Harry Reid and Ted Kennedy. He was referring, of course, to McConnell’s refusal to act on President Barack Obama’s final Supreme Court nomination with nearly a year left in his White House tenure, a vacancy that was eventually filled by Neil Gorsuch, a conservative-leaning justice appointed by Trump. “For many Democrats, that was the final straw,” Manley said. “Those that had been in the Senate for many years saw McConnell increasingly using the filibuster to block everything that the Democrats tried to bring to the floor. Then all of a sudden, he made up this phony election-year rule that prevented Garland from even getting a hearing. They saw that as proof that he was nothing more than a naked partisan prepared to use every tool available to prevent President Obama from getting anything done.”

Under the Senate’s usual rules, the minority party—and even a single senator—has significant power to delay or alter the proceedings. But under the impeachment-trial rules, McConnell can resolve any dispute by simple majority vote—and, for the moment anyway, he has the votes to do so. That’s why Schumer and the Democrats were so determined to force votes on each amendment, in an attempt to hammer home their contention that the trial, in its present incarnation, is inherently unfair. It’s the only leverage they have, and the only real remaining suspense is whether at least four GOP senators might join Democrats next week in agreeing to seek witness testimony or subpoena more documents. Schumer and McConnell met once for about 20 minutes in December to discuss settling on bipartisan procedures for the trial but made no progress, and have been in open warfare ever since.

In his opening remarks yesterday, Schumer dismissed McConnell’s rules for the trial as “nothing short of a national disgrace” and “completely partisan,” while McConnell portrayed his plan as “a fair road map” that would ensure “finally, some fairness” in the impeachment inquiry. It escaped no one’s notice in the chamber that those propositions are inherently irreconcilable, and if McConnell and Schumer had yet to engage in any further sparring as today wore on, it was only because neither side chose to present any motions that might be the subject of the full Senate’s debate, so the House managers had unbroken access to the floor to present their case instead.

The affair thus far is markedly different from the Clinton trial two decades ago, when procedural rules were passed unanimously after Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi and his Democratic counterpart, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, had resolved to work together despite the rancorous partisanship over the president’s affair with Monica Lewinsky.*

“Tom and I had a good relationship and had already been working together,” Lott told me by phone today. “He’s a prairie liberal and I’m a conservative southern Republican, but we had similar backgrounds, in terms of the communities we grew up in—and an agricultural environment and so on—and we’d had time to develop a trusting relationship.” By contrast, Lott added, “Everybody knows that Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell don’t mix. They’re oil and water, a New York City guy and someone who was born in Alabama and represents Kentucky. They just have very different backgrounds, and very different views of the world.”

Part of the secret of Lott and Daschle’s cooperation was that both wanted to avoid the salacious spectacle—favored by some firebrand Republicans—of having Lewinsky and perhaps even Clinton himself testify on the Senate floor about the details of their sexual encounters. So the leaders initially proposed an abbreviated trial schedule intended to wrap things up swiftly.

“I presented it to the Republican caucus, and they did everything but stone me and throw me into the street,” Lott recalled. “I had to call Tom and say, ‘I can’t sell this,’ so we were back at ground zero. We fumbled around for a week and couldn’t figure out how to get going.” Eventually, all 100 senators agreed to caucus in secret in the Old Senate Chamber with no aides or record of the proceedings.

At one point in that caucus, Senator Phil Gramm, a Republican from Texas, rose to speak, and was followed by Kennedy, the chamber’s liberal lion. Lott suddenly looked at his Republican colleague Connie Mack of Florida and said, “I think they’re saying the same thing.” So he and Daschle agreed to announce the compromise to the waiting press, but on their way to the microphones, each turned to the other and asked whether they really understood what they’d just agreed to. The answer was no, but the important point was there was agreement, and a bipartisan team was dispatched to work out the eventual details, which included waiting until after both sides had presented their arguments before deciding whether to call witnesses. (In the end, three, including Lewinsky, were deposed on videotape, with excerpts played for the full Senate.) Clinton’s then–chief of staff, John Podesta, told me last year that it was his single lowest moment of the impeachment saga, because such bipartisan agreement risked making the proceedings seem fair, when the White House was trying to paint Special Prosecutor Ken Starr’s investigation as prurient and partisan.

No such worries about sex and decorum—and no such comity—are anywhere in sight this week. As the lead House impeachment manager, Representative Adam Schiff, noted in the first few minutes of his side’s 24 hours of argument this afternoon: “We have some very long days yet to come.”

In his invocation this afternoon, Senate Chaplain Barry Black beseeched the Almighty to help senators “remember that patriots reside on both sides of the aisle, that words have consequences, and that how something is said can be as important as what is said,” and asked God to “give them a civility built upon integrity.”

Schumer and McConnell could hardly have helped but hear the prayer. Whether they were listening is another question completely.

*This story previously misstated the state that Trent Lott represented in the Senate. It is Mississippi, not Louisiana.