Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, on Monday appeared to break with some of her GOP colleagues when she stated that she is "open" to calling witnesses as part of the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.
Collins, in separate interviews with Maine Public Radio and WCSH, a Maine TV station, said a decision on potential witnesses should wait until after senators hear opening arguments from both House impeachment managers and Trump's legal team.
"I am open to witnesses. I think it's premature to decide who should be called until we see the evidence that is presented and get the answers to the questions that we senators can submit through the Chief Justice to both sides," Collins told Maine Public Radio when asked about calling acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney or former national security adviser John Bolton. Neither Mulvaney nor Bolton testified during the House impeachment inquiry.
Collins said she thought Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., should follow the model of the five-week impeachment trial of former President Bill Clinton in 1999. Collins, one of the 15 senators currently serving who voted in the Clinton impeachment trial in 1999, said the Clinton process was "fair" and "thorough."
During the Clinton trial, senators voted 100-0 on a resolution detailing the rules of the trial. A second calling witnesses broke down along party lines.
"We then had a vote on whether or not we needed further information, and we decided to depose three witnesses. So they did not testify in person, but they were deposed by both sides," Collins told WCSH of the Clinton process. "and that was a valuable way to proceed in that trial."
Collins added that it was "hard to envision" that McConnell and Schumer would be able to negotiate a deal at the outset of the trial that would pass unanimously. The Senate left town earlier this month until January with the two leaders at an "impasse" over trial rules.
Collins told Maine Public Radio that she has spoken in the GOP caucus about urging leaders to use the Clinton trial as their framework.
"I have shared with my colleagues my belief that the Clinton approach — the approach to the Clinton trial worked well," she said.
Collins' comments come even as many of her Republicans colleagues in the Senate, including McConnell, have said they hope the Senate will act swiftly to acquit the president. McConnell, for his part, has said that he will not act as an "impartial juror" during the Senate trial, and he is "in total coordination with the White House."
Collins, who is up for re-election in 2020 and is often viewed as a critical swing vote in the Senate, has indeed emerged as a possible swing vote in the Senate impeachment trial, along with Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah and Cory Gardner of Colorado. Collins, for her part, has not revealed whether she would vote to acquit or convict Trump.
Senate Democrats have said they want to hear testimony from four administration witnesses who have not previously testified in the inquiry, including Mulvaney and Bolton. They also want to subpoena documents the Trump administration has refused to turn over as part of the inquiry.
They will need to win over four GOP senators in order to successfully call a witness during the trial and have vowed to force votes on the Senate floor.
Schumer has said he wants to pass one resolution at the start of the trial, which would determine both the rules for proceedings and any specific witnesses who would be called to testify.
Earlier this month, Trump became only the third president in history to face removal from office by the Senate for "high crimes and misdemeanors." The articles of impeachment approved by the House of Representatives accuse the president of abusing his power by leveraging congressionally-approved military aid for his personal and political gain and of obstructing the congressional inquiry into his dealings with Ukraine.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has suggested that she may not submit the two articles of impeachment against Trump to the upper chamber unless McConnell and Schumer broker a deal on the rules of the trial.
Democrats who favor delaying sending the articles to the Senate believe the move could put pressure on McConnell to compromise on a rules package for a trial. Those opposed have expressed concern that withholding the articles could be interpreted as a game of political chess, which could ultimately backfire.
There is no constitutional requirement mandating that the articles of impeachment be sent to the Senate within a certain timeframe — or even at all — but a Senate trial can only kick off once the articles are delivered. The standoff between McConnell and Schumer could force Trump to wait indefinitely for a trial in the GOP-controlled Senate.
"The House chose to ignore the option of going to court and rushed to get through the articles of impeachment by Christmas and yet has still not sent them over to the Senate," Collins told Maine Public Radio of the House process.
Senate Republicans ultimately have the power to set trial rules without Democratic votes, but that will require unity from at least 51 members of the 53-member GOP caucus.
The Senate would require a two-third majority, or 67 votes, to convict the president and remove him from office. Thus, at least 20 Republicans would need to break from Trump in order to convict him in a Senate trial, assuming every Democrat votes to remove him from office.