WASHINGTON (AP) -- For a second time, Republican senators face the choice of whether to convict President Donald Trump in an impeachment trial. While only one GOP senator, Utah's Mitt Romney, voted to convict Trump last year, that number could increase as lawmakers consider whether to punish Trump for his role in inciting a deadly insurrection at the Capitol.
Whatever they decide, Trump is likely to be gone from the White House when the verdict comes in. An impeachment trial is likely to start next week, as early as Inauguration Day, raising the specter of the Senate trying the previous president even as it moves to confirm the incoming president's Cabinet.
GOP leader Mitch McConnell, who says he's undecided, is one of several key senators to watch, along with Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, who is set to take the Senate reins as his party reclaims the Senate majority. Others to watch include GOP senators up for reelection in 2022 and several Republicans who have publicly backed impeachment.
ALL EYES ON McCONNELL
At least at the trial's start, all eyes will be on McConnell, who largely protected Trump during the last impeachment trial and refused Democrats' pleas to call witnesses. This time, Trump may not be so fortunate.
McConnell has told associates he is done with Trump and has said publicly he is undecided on impeachment. How he votes could sway other Republicans whose votes Trump needs to avoid conviction.
The Republican leader holds great sway in his party even though convening the trial could be among his last acts as majority leader.
Even as minority leader, McConnell will be a crucial and perhaps decisive voice. If the veteran Kentucky Republican sticks with Trump, conviction is unlikely. If McConnell votes against Trump, all bets are off as Democrats seek the 17 GOP votes they will need for the first-ever Senate conviction in a presidential impeachment trial.
McConnell's public neutrality on impeachment is widely seen as an effort to restrain Trump's behavior, with an acquittal largely contingent on Trump's ability to persuade his supporters not to incite more violence.
SCHUMER'S TRICKY PATH
The impeachment trial coincides not just with the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, but also a change in Senate leadership to Democratic control. Two new senators from Georgia, both Democrats, are to be sworn into office later this month, leaving the chamber divided 50-50. That tips the majority to the Democrats once Kamala Harris takes office as vice president and breaks the tie.
On Inauguration Day, the Senate typically confirms some of the new president's Cabinet, particularly national security officials, a task that could prove challenging. Schumer said he is working with Republicans to find a path forward.
“Make no mistake: There will be an impeachment trial in the United States Senate,'' Schumer said. “There will be a vote on convicting the president for high crimes and misdemeanors.'' And if Trump is convicted, ”there will be a vote on barring him from running again.''
MURKOWSKI, TOOMEY DENOUNCE TRUMP
At least two GOP senators — Alaska's Lisa Murkowski and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania — have joined Romney in denouncing Trump.
In a statement Thursday, Murkowski said the House was right to impeach Trump, who has "perpetrated false rhetoric that the election was stolen and rigged, even after dozens of courts ruled against these claims.''
When he was not able to persuade the courts or elected officials, Trump “launched a pressure campaign against his own vice president, urging him to take actions that he had no authority to do,” said Murkowski, one of the few GOP senators to criticize Trump's behavior during the impeachment trial a year ago.
On the day of the riots, “President Trump's words incited violence” that led to the deaths of five Americans, including a Capitol Police officer, as well as “the desecration of the Capitol,'' Murkowski said. The insurrection briefly interfered with the peaceful transfer of power, she said, adding: ”Such unlawful actions cannot go without consequence.''
Toomey, a conservative who has generally backed Trump, made news on Sunday by calling on Trump to resign for the good of the country. While resignation was the “best path forward,'' Toomey acknowledged that was unlikely. Trump's role in encouraging the riot is an “impeachable offense,” Toomey said.
PORTMAN SEEKS A MIDDLE PATH
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, tried to walk a narrow path on impeachment. Portman, a moderate who is up for reelection in 2022, said after the House impeachment vote on Wednesday that Trump "bears some responsibility for what occurred,'' but added he was reassured by Trump's comment the same day that violence of any kind is unacceptable.
Portman pledged to do his duty as a juror in a Senate impeachment trial, but said he is “concerned about the polarization in our country'' and hopes to bring people together. A top consideration during impeachment "will be what is best to help heal our country rather than deepen our divisions,” Portman said.
SASSE DECRIES TRUMP'S ELECTION 'LIE'
Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, a conservative Republican, said he, too, is undecided on impeachment, but ripped Trump over his repeated false claims of a “stolen” election.
"Everything that we're dealing with here — the riot, the loss of life, the impeachment, and now the fact that the U.S. Capitol has been turned into a barracks for federal troops for the first time since the Civil War — is the result of a particular lie,'' Sasse said Thursday.
When Trump urged his supporters to “fight like hell' to disrupt Congress' Jan. 6 proceedings to certify the election results, “it was widely understood that his crowd included many people who were planning to fight physically, and who were prepared to die in response to his false claims of a 'stolen election,'” Sasse said.
He called Trump “derelict in his duty to defend the Constitution and uphold the rule of law'' and said Americans now have an obligation to "lower the temperature'' and maintain the peace.
THUNE TAKES HEAT FROM TRUMP
South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican, had dismissed Trump's efforts to overturn the election, famously — and accurately — predicting the effort would “go down like a shot dog'' in the Senate. Thune's comment drew a furious response from the president. Before his Twitter account was taken away, Trump called Thune a “RINO” whose “political career (is) over!!!” He also urged Gov. Kristi Noem to run against Thune in a GOP primary, an idea she immediately rejected.
Thune, who has remained mum on impeachment, made light of Trump's threat last week, saying "it's a free country.'' Then, in words that could apply to impeachment, he added: "You just got to play the hand you're dealt.”