Congress

‘Shooting with real bullets,’ Democrats change tune on impeachment vote

Rep. Al Green prepared to force third vote on impeaching Trump but has lost some support

Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., left, said she now agrees with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., that Democrats should not go down the path of impeaching President Donald Trump after supporting two efforts to bring articles of impeachment to a vote last year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

An intransigent proponent of impeaching President Donald Trump plans to force his Democratic colleagues to go on record on the issue again this year — after twice doing so last Congress. But the vote tally may look a lot different than in 2017 and 2018 when roughly five dozen Democrats wanted to debate and vote on impeachment.

Democrats, then in the minority, were eager for any forum to debate the president’s alleged crimes since Republicans weren’t investigating them. But now that they’re in the majority and have multiple congressional committees probing Trump, most Democrats want to avoid rushing to judgement or action.

“Now we’re kind of shooting with real bullets here,” Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky said.

An ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Schakowsky said she for the most part agrees with the California Democrat’s comments to the Washington Post  that impeachment is an issue that will divide the country and that Trump “is not worth it.”

“I want to see Trump gone,” Schakowsky said. “The truth is impeachment in the House of Representatives is not going to make that happen. The Senate is not going to do that. And so what we’ll do is suck up all the air. It’ll all be about impeachment. It won’t happen. … We are likely to have to just win the election in 2020.”

That’s effectively what Pelosi was saying as she told the Post that she’s “not for impeachment” and that Democrats shouldn’t go down that path “unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan.”

It’s a high bar to meet, but it’s one the majority of Pelosi’s caucus is willingly agreeing to abide by. There’s one notable exception: Rep. Al Green.

The Texas Democrat said Tuesday in an interview with C-SPAN and later in a conversation with reporters that he plans to file articles of impeachment against Trump as a privileged resolution, which would trigger a two-day time clock in which the House has to consider the matter. Green declined to say when he would take such action, noting that he has an “acid test” for determining the appropriate time but declining to detail it.

When Green does act, Democratic leaders are likely to avoid a straight up or down vote by moving to table the resolution. Republicans did that the last two times Green took such action when the GOP held the majority.

Both GOP motions to table Green’s impeachment resolution succeeded with bipartisan support, but dozens of Democrats joined him in voting against it — 58 on Dec. 6, 2017 and 66 on Jan. 18, 2018.

It was a sign that at a minimum, those Democrats wanted to vote on impeachment. For many, the vote was also about signaling their support for removing Trump from office. (A few of those Democrats are no longer in office, but the number of new freshmen pushing for impeachment appears to be far greater than the number who’ve exited.)

Different tune in majority

Fast forward over a year later and many of those Democrats are singing a different tune as Green promises a third vote.

Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III appears to be wrapping up his investigation and close to issuing his final report. Many Democrats believe that report will likely point to actions by Trump that amount to high crimes and misdemeanors, what the Constitution defines as the standard for impeachment.

And yet, of the 15 Democrats Roll Call interviewed Tuesday who previously voted against tabling Green’s articles of impeachment, only one-third would commit to voting the same way.

Most of the other two-thirds indicated they are less enthusiastic about the prospect of an impeachment vote and want to proceed more cautiously now that their party is in the majority.

Four of those members who’ve grown less keen to vote on impeachment are members of the Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over those proceedings.

One of those panel members, California Rep. Ted Lieu, said he viewed the votes Green forced on impeachment while Democrats were in the minority as an effort “to start the investigatory process” amid Republican objections to bringing in certain witnesses and obtaining certain documents that might shed light on Trump’s actions leading up to and since his election in 2016.

But now the Democrats are in power, and the Judiciary Committee is investigating Trump. Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., has sent letters requesting documents and interviews from 81 people and entities tied to Trump, including key staff on the president’s 2016 and re-election campaigns, his inaugural committee, his family and his businesses.

Lieu said he’s not sure how he’d vote on an impeachment resolution now that Democrats have launched those probes. “I’d have to read to see what it says,” the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee co-chair said.

Likewise, Judiciary member Steve Cohen said he would have to see the text of the resolution. The Tennessee Democrat was unaware Green was planning to force another vote on articles of impeachment and said he’d need to talk to him about it.

“I’ve supported [having a vote] in the past, but I do think now that we’re in the majority and we’re having hearings, I think we ought to let our hearings proceed before we get to the step of impeachment,” he said.

Cohen introduced his own impeachment articles against Trump in the last Congress but said he has avoided such a step in 2019 “because I don’t think the votes are anywhere near being there.”

‘Premature’

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, another Judiciary member, said “impeachment is premature at this moment” and signaled he wouldn’t support Green's latest effort.

Jeffries opposed Green’s 2017 articles but supported his 2018 version because it was intended in part as a rebuke to the president for blaming “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides” after a white supremacists rally in Charlottesville, Va., the previous year where a woman was hit and killed by a car. That matter “needed to be aired in some form or fashion on the floor of the House,” he said.

But with Democrats back in the majority, Jeffries appeared to be pumping the breaks on impeachment.

“We need to wait for the Mueller investigation to be concluded and we need to wait for the Southern District of New York to conclude its investigation before we even consider what the appropriate next step might be,” he said, noting a separate probe from Mueller’s by the U.S. attorneys office in New York.

For some Judiciary Democrats, like Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, it’s about much more than Mueller.

“We look at obstruction of justice. We look at abuse of power. And we look at public corruption of the emoluments clause. And none of that has been out there," Jayapal said. "So that was the reason that I voted to have that discussion around impeachment [in the minority]. Now that I’m on the Judiciary Committee and we have the gavel, my belief is that we need to get all this information — and now we can because we are in the majority.”

‘Not sure we’ll be able to legislate’

Other Democratic members who said they backed Green’s 2017 and 2018 impeachment articles as an effort to jump-start oversight responsibilities the Republican majority was avoiding were Reps. Lois Frankel of Florida, G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina and Brian Higgins of New York. They all were noncommittal on how they’d vote now that they’re in the majority and investigations they called for are under way.

As a judge, Butterfield said he’s waiting to see the Mueller report. But he also noted that impeachment is not high on Democrats’ to-do list.

“We have ten stated legislative objectives that we’re trying to accomplish — many more, but we have 10 priorities — and if we get embroiled in an impeachment fight, I’m not sure we’ll be able to legislate,” Butterfield said.

Higgins, too, said he’d have to wait to see the impeachment resolution before deciding how to vote. However, he added that “impeachment is a political process” and this close to the 2020 presidential election, “We meet the same objective at the ballot box.”

Frankel indicated she’d vote against moving forward with the resolution now if that’s what the majority of the caucus felt was best.

“My opinion of the president hasn’t changed, but I’m the kind of person to go along with the team,” she said. 

Some staying the course

Despite most viewing an impeachment vote differently from the lens of the majority, a few prominent Democrats who had backed Green’s prior efforts plan to stay the course on the coming third vote.

“Look, if an impeachment resolution is brought to the floor, I’m going to vote for it,” Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi said, anticipating — correctly — a question about Green’s plans to force a vote on the measure.

Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Karen Bass said that while she agrees with Pelosi that impeachment would be a distraction “primarily because it’s not going to go anywhere,” she would back a resolution if brought to the floor.

“I’m not going to vote against it,” the California Democrat said, saying there is not enough of a case to actually impeach Trump yet but “the way it looks now [is] that he’s been involved in tons of nefarious stuff.”

Rep. Adriano Espaillat also said he’d back Green’s effort again. While he understands many Democrats’ desire to proceed with caution and wait for the Mueller report, he believes there’s already enough evidence that shows Trump has “crossed the line in many ways.”

“At the end of the day, there’s smoke there,” the New York Democrat said. “And I think there’s some fire.”

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