What to expect as Trump impeachment debate hits the House floor

5 talking points from past few months likely to be repeated in floor speeches

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., holds up a pocket Constitution as she votes yes in the House Judiciary Committee markup of the articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump on Friday, Dec. 13, 2019. Expect the Constitution to come up frequently during House floor debate. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., holds up a pocket Constitution as she votes yes in the House Judiciary Committee markup of the articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump on Friday, Dec. 13, 2019. Expect the Constitution to come up frequently during House floor debate. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted December 17, 2019 at 12:00pm

Democrats and Republicans have been making their respective cases for and against impeaching President Donald Trump for months, but it is Wednesday’s debate on the House floor that will be memorialized in history.

Lawmakers have already made their arguments through weeks of the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees’ proceedings, news conferences and cable TV appearances, so what they say Wednesday will be repetitive to those who’ve been paying attention. 

But the closing arguments on the floor will be crucial messaging opportunities for members looking to reach Americans just tuning in and the historians that will eventually recount the third presidential impeachment.

Themes of constitutional obligation and solemnity will punctuate Democrats’ floor speeches as they present the facts to the American people for the final time before the impeachment debate moves to the Senate for a trial next year.

Democrats will argue Trump abused his office for personal political gain by asking Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter and sought to hide his scheme to use U.S. military assistance and a White House meeting as leverage by blocking witness testimony and document production to Congress. 

Republicans will dispute Democrats’ claims about the facts, saying Trump sought to investigate corruption and he released the military aid and met with Ukraine’s new president, although not at the White House, without the country opening an investigation into the Bidens. 

The GOP will also gripe about the process the majority used to get to this point and say Democrats have wanted to impeach Trump since he was elected in 2016.

Little suspense remains about what will happen when the House clerk calls the roll on the two articles charging Trump with abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. 

Democrats locked down the votes needed to impeach Trump weeks ago and are expecting less than half-a-dozen party defections. Republicans, meanwhile, have solidified their opposition and  expect none of their members will support either article but will celebrate Democratic “no” votes as a bipartisan showing against impeachment. 

Reps. Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota and Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, Democrats who voted against the impeachment inquiry procedures in October, have already announced plans to vote against both articles. Conveniently after the vote, Van Drew is expected to switch parties and become a Republican. 

There are a dwindling number of Democrats who remained undecided. On Tuesday morning, Oklahoma Rep. Kendra Horn, one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the House in 2020, announced she will vote yes to impeach Trump.

“It is with a heavy heart, but with clarity of conviction that I have made my decision. The oath I took to protect and defend the Constitution requires a vote for impeachment. This is not a decision I came to lightly, but I must do my part to ensure our democracy remains strong,” she said in a statement.

Trump won Horn’s district by 14 points in 2016. Horn is the first Democrat in nearly 40 years to represent the Oklahoma City area in the House after her upset victory in 2018.

The roll call vote will follow several hours of floor debate, equally split between the parties. Here are five talking points you can expect to be repeated as members make their cases on the floor: 

1. The Constitution, Founding Fathers and the oath

The power of impeachment is granted to the House by the Constitution. As both parties have interpreted whether the allegations against Trump rise to the occasion of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” they’ve frequently invoked the Founding Fathers. 

Democrats have often cited George Washington.  

“President Trump has not only abused his power for the upcoming election, he used a foreign power to do it,” California Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a veteran of three presidential impeachment inquiries, said last week as the Judiciary Committee marked up the articles. “George Washington would likely be astonished since he warned against the insidious wiles of foreign influence.”

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Republicans have repeatedly referenced Alexander Hamilton, an advocate for a strong executive who, interestingly, wrote the Federalist Paper essays addressing impeachment powers as a necessary check on the president.

“The greatest danger Hamilton said would be if impeachment was used politically by a party that had the most votes in the House instead of being used on the basis of guilt or innocence for specified crimes under the Constitution,” Texas GOP Rep. John Ratcliffe said at the Judiciary markup, accusing the majority of doing exactly that. “Today’s Democrats are the founders’ worst nightmare come true.”

Even more frequently, Democrats cite the oath they swore to the Constitution to reference their obligation to defend democracy or remind Republicans they’re failing to do so. Of the 23 Democrats present for the Judiciary markup, 14 specifically cited the oath in their opening statements.

“You didn’t swear an oath to Donald Trump,” Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline said to Republicans. “You swore an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. Honor that oath.”

Members love the Constitution so much it may even be used as a prop during their floor speeches. In the Judiciary markup, Washington Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal held up her pocket copy as she cast “yes” votes for both articles.

2. ‘Sad day’

Every day that Democrats have taken a step toward impeaching Trump has been a “sad day” or a “solemn” occasion — at least that’s how they’ve characterized developments in the impeachment inquiry over the past three months. Democrats have frequently used these descriptions to set the tone for the historic proceedings as they’ve told the public that they take no joy in impeaching Trump.

“This is a sad day in U.S. history, when we have to vote on articles of impeachment because Donald Trump has abused the power of the office of the presidency in his attempt to cheat his way to reelection,” California Rep. Karen Bass said at the Judiciary markup.

Republicans, too, found the markup to be a “sad day.” 

“This is a sad day for the institution of Congress, a blatantly political process, and yes, an abuse of power by the majority designed to achieve what they simply could not achieve at the ballot box,” Virginia Rep. Ben Cline said. “As I said, it is a sad day for America.”

In setting the tone for the gravity of the action they’ve been preparing to take, Democrats have also repeatedly noted impeachment is not why they came to Congress. 

“I didn’t come here to impeach a president,” Texas freshman Rep. Sylvia R. Garcia said. 

Democrats, especially first-term lawmakers, have used that line — or some variation of it — to illustrate to constituents there are other things they’d rather be focused on. Many of them use it as a segue to mention overlooked policy accomplishments.

3. ‘Sham’ process

Republicans have generally set a different tone, one of combativeness, as they’ve argued why Trump should not be impeached. The GOP has accused Democrats of denying Trump due process and repeatedly called the impeachment inquiry a “sham.”

“We’ve called this impeachment a sham because we just simply don’t have a better way to describe it,” Louisiana Rep. Mike Johnson, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, said during the markup.

Expect Republicans to point the finger at Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff as they describe flaws in the process.

“While the Constitution gives broad latitude to the House to set its own rules for impeachment, past congresses have understood that if it is to be viewed as legitimate by the American people, the proceeding must be as devoid of politics as possible,” Cline said. “In fact, Speaker Pelosi said herself that impeachment must be compelling, overwhelming, and bipartisan. Sadly, this process possesses none of these characteristics.”

Republicans only mentioned Pelosi 16 times during the three-day markup but they named Schiff more than six dozen times. Some argued that it is Schiff, not Trump, who has abused his power.

“The chairman used his subpoena power to subpoena individual phone records, then went through those records, singled out Devin Nunes in an attempt to smear a ranking member. That’s the abuse of power,” Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Guy Reschenthaler said. “You want to talk about more abuse? How about dropping 8,000 pages of documents on Judiciary Republicans less than 48 hours before our last hearing? That’s an abuse of power. If this were a court of law, Chairman Schiff right now would be facing sanctions and would be defending his law license.”

4. Personal stories

Impeachment may be about Trump but that doesn’t mean members won’t find a way to make it about themselves. Every moment in the spotlight is a public relations opportunity and the floor debate on impeachment will be no exception. 

Take the Judiciary Committee markup as an example. Several Democrats told personal anecdotes or shared details about their backgrounds — ostensibly to connect more with the public. 

Jayapal and Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell of Florida talked about immigrating to the United States, while Reps. Lou Correa of California and Joe Neguse of Colorado noted they are the sons of immigrants. Rep. Lucy McBath, a Democrat who flipped a Republican-held seat in Georgia, talked about her son’s death due to gun violence and how she came to Congress to push for gun safety laws, not impeach a president.

Some members’ personal stories were hardly related to impeachment, but others made more of direct correlation. Rep. Eric Swalwell discussed how a former mayor of Algona, Iowa, threatened to fire his father, the police chief, if he didn’t fix parking tickets he had issued to him and city council members.

“My dad believe no one was above the law and held firm,” Swalwell said. “He lost his job and we packed up our little family and moved west. It was my first lesson in politics, abuse of power, and executive arrogance.”

Swalwell compared the mayor’s request of his father to the loyalty Trump has sought from congressional Republicans.

“Their behavior has been a reminder that too often in politics, there’s more of an emphasis of keeping your job rather than doing the right thing,” the California Democrat said. “But governance is about courage.” 

5. Letting a few speak for the party

Republicans claim Democrats have been trying to impeach Trump for three years because they were unhappy with the 2016 results. They cite articles of impeachment against Trump that Democratic Reps. Brad Sherman of California and Al Green of Texas introduced in 2017.

Most frequently the GOP likes to quote Democrats whose comments illustrate that the party’s impeachment push is more about their distaste for Trump than any of the president’s actions. 

“Representative [Rashida] Tlaib said we’re going to impeach the ‘blank’ during a January 3, 2019 swearing-in ceremony. What about May 6, 2019, when Representative Al Green said I’m concerned that if we don’t impeach this president he will get reelected?” Rep. Ken Buck said during the Judiciary markup.

“It’s clear that my Democratic colleagues have prejudged this case,” the Colorado Republican added, telling Democrats they can kiss their majority goodbye.  

Republicans also like to cite Van Drew and Peterson voting against the impeachment inquiry procedures as indication of bipartisan opposition to ousting Trump.

“Democrats Jeff Van Drew and Collin Peterson don’t support the president,” Florida GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz said during the markup. “But they don’t support this hot garbage impeachment either.” 

Todd Ruger, Stephanie Akin and George LeVines contributed to this report.

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