UPDATE 4-U.S. lawmakers begin debate over impeachment articles

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives moved closer on Wednesday to impeaching Donald Trump as a key House committee began debating formal articles of impeachment that are expected to be brought to the House floor next week.

The House Judiciary Committee was meeting to consider the two articles, which accuse Trump of abusing his power by trying to force Ukraine to investigate political rival Joe Biden and of obstructing Congress when lawmakers tried to look into the matter.

“If the president can first abuse his power and then stonewall all congressional requests for information, Congress cannot fulfill its duty to act as a check and balance against the executive (branch) — and the president becomes a dictator,” Representative Jerrold Nadler, the Democratic chairman of the Judiciary panel, said in opening remarks.

But the committee’s top Republican, Doug Collins, accused Democrats of being predisposed toward impeachment and argued that the evidence did not support it.

“You can’t make your case against the president because nothing happened,” Collins said.

The committee is expected to approve the charges sometime on Thursday. The full Democratic-led House is likely to follow suit next week, making Trump the third president in U.S. history to be impeached.

Following the House vote, charges will go to the Senate for trial. On Wednesday, the president and senior Republicans appeared to be coalescing around the idea of a shorter proceeding in that chamber.

After initially saying he wanted a full-blown, potentially lengthy trial in the Republican-led Senate, Trump, who has denied wrongdoing and condemned the inquiry, now seemed to be leaning toward a streamlined affair that would allow him to move quickly past the threat to his presidency, two sources familiar with the situation said on Wednesday.

Trump’s new thinking could remove a potential source of friction with Senate Republicans, who appeared to balk at the idea of a long trial with witnesses.

But it was not yet clear whether Trump was ready to abandon his demand for witnesses, such as Biden, which would trigger demands from Democrats for high-profile Trump administration witnesses.

A Republican staffer places placards before the House Judiciary Committee begins its markup of articles of impeachment against U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., December 11, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

“I think as an American the best thing we can do is deep-six this thing,” a staunch Trump ally, Senator Lindsey Graham, told reporters on Wednesday.

Asked why he thought Republican senators were now talking about a short trial, possibly with no witnesses, Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, said: “I think the answer is obvious. They want to move on because obviously they think more attention paid to this is not in their best interest in re-election.”

CONSTITUTION AT STAKE

Democrats say Trump endangered the U.S. Constitution, jeopardized national security and undermined the integrity of the 2020 election by pressuring Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in a July 25 telephone call to investigate Biden, a former vice president and a leading contender for the Democratic nomination to face Trump in next year’s election.

The articles of impeachment unveiled on Tuesday do not draw on other, more contentious aspects of Trump’s tenure, such as his efforts to impede former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe. Democratic lawmakers from more conservative districts had argued the focus should stay on Ukraine.

Many Democrats in those swing districts remain unsure how they will vote on impeachment, although with a 36-seat lead over Republicans in the House, passage is expected.

Slideshow (10 Images)

Trump will be on friendlier terrain in the Senate, where Democrats are not expected to pick up the 20 Republican votes they need at a minimum to drive the president from office.

If the House approves the charges, a trial would be the Senate’s “first order of business in January,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor on Wednesday.

McConnell, a close Trump ally, says no decision has been made over how to conduct the trial. Approving the rules will require agreement by the majority of the Senate’s 100 members.

McConnell has said he wants lawmakers to return to their regular business at a time when Republicans will be campaigning for the 2020 election on a message of a strong U.S. economy.

Reporting by Richard Cowan and Susan Cornwell; Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Andy Sullivan, Patricia Zengerle and David Morgan; Writing by Sonya Hepinstall and James Oliphant; Editing by Peter Henderson, Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney

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