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One Big Wildcard Looms in Debate Over Witnesses

Would John Roberts break a tie vote in the Senate?
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 30, 2020 8:25 AM CST

(Newser) – The Senate is expected to vote Friday on whether to call witnesses in President Trump's impeachment trial. The big focus is on whether Democrats can get the necessary four votes from Republicans to make that happen. But what if they get only three, resulting in a 50-50 tie? At that point, nobody is quite sure what will happen, reports Politico. All eyes would be on Chief Justice John Roberts, who is presiding over the trial, to see if he would break the tie. "That is a great unknown," says GOP Sen. James Lankford. "There’s no way to know procedurally what he would do. Or if he'll do anything." If Roberts does nothing, a 50-50 tie means no witnesses would be called.

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In terms of precedent, Chief Justice William Rehnquist did not have to break any ties in the Bill Clinton trial of 1999. However, Chief Justice Salmon Chase broke two ties during the 1868 trial of Andrew Johnson, notes the Hill. The best guess, based on comments from senators in both stories, is that Roberts would not break a tie. That includes Democrats. "I don’t want Roberts voting," says Sen. Chris Murphy. "The Constitution specifically gives the power to the vice president to break ties, (but) it’s silent on that matter in an impeachment trial," in which the VP plays no role. "Which leads me to the opinion that he’s not supposed to vote." In the meantime, Mitch McConnell is trying to shore up enough GOP votes to make it a moot point. (McConnell doesn't appear to be successful yet.)

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