House members feel the weight of history in impeachment votes

Tourists walk past a plaque marking Andrew Johnson's congressional seat in Statuary Hall as the House takes up articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump on Wednesday. Johnson was the first U.S. president to be impeached. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Tourists walk past a plaque marking Andrew Johnson's congressional seat in Statuary Hall as the House takes up articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump on Wednesday. Johnson was the first U.S. president to be impeached. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted December 18, 2019 at 5:36pm

Virginia Republican Rep. Denver Riggleman stopped for a split second as he walked into the House chamber Wednesday afternoon, held up a copy of the two-minute speech he was about to give on the impeachment of President Donald Trump, and posed as a staffer took his photo for Twitter.

On a day when Democrats and Republicans divided sharply over whether Trump’s behavior in office should make him just the third president to face impeachment in the House, Riggleman’s move was among the many small signs that members of Congress could agree on one thing.

What they did and said Wednesday would be closely scrutinized years in the future.

“On the Republican side this looks ridiculous, but we still are in a historical time,” Riggleman said. “And what we do today, how we speak, how we conduct ourselves, will be judged throughout history.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi wore all black and a lapel pin of the House’s ceremonial mace as she “solemnly and sadly” opened debate, a theme members of her party stuck to throughout the day.

House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., came to Washington to run the floor debate despite an ongoing family emergency that forced him to miss a House Rules Committee hearing Tuesday. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., selected an American flag tie.

There was little drama about the outcome, with Democrats securing enough votes earlier in the week to approve two articles of impeachment against Trump.

Off the House floor, a staffer recorded a quick video as Illinois Democrat Raja Krishnamoorthi explained what was happening, calling it “an incredibly weighty day in the Capitol.”

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil rights icon, said Wednesday that Trump’s impeachment caused him to reflect on his very first trip to Washington in May 1961 to start the original Freedom Rides, the March on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in August 1963 and meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was being signed.

“There were days and moments that we sort of selected,” Lewis said. “What is going on now is one that history has thrust on us.”

Lewis said the day was sad and weighed heavily on members. “We can’t hide it, we can’t sweep it under the rug, we have to deal with it,” Lewis said. “We have to send a message that no president is above the law.”

That held true for Rep. Lucy McBath, D-Ga., who said she has been “praying a great deal over Congress, over my colleagues, over the nation.” McBath’s election came in part because of her strong stance on gun laws after the shooting death of her 17-year-old son, a theme she stuck to during her opening statement in the House Judiciary Committee markup on the articles of impeachment.

“Outside of burying my child, this is the hardest thing I think I’ll ever do in my life,” McBath said on her way to some of Wednesday’s first votes.

For all the partisan speeches on the floor, there was almost a tranquil atmosphere outside the chamber as members came and went throughout the hours of debate on the articles of impeachment.

Rep. Lou Correa, D-Calif., leaving the floor after delivering his speech, said he narrowed more than seven pages of thoughts down to just two minutes of a speech for the world to see. Delivering it meant seeing Pelosi next to him, as well as the press and the public in the galleries, and the weight of knowing his words would be remembered.

“It is historic; at the same time it’s a little unnerving, and it all went like a blur,” Correa said.

Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., spent time in his office preparing remarks on what he called a reflective day where not much other business was scheduled on the House side.

“That was harder than I thought it would be,” Kildee said. “Normally, I’d just sort of throw it out there, but as I was writing it I was thinking — not that everyone is going to look at what I said, but the people who I care about, my family, they’ll be paying attention to what I had to say.”

At the same time, the House felt much like business as usual. The impeachment vote was sandwiched between a major spending bill deal on Tuesday and a vote on a trade bill on Thursday.

The Senate took key votes on a slate of Trump’s judicial nominees, in a sign that the impeachment vote wouldn’t dent the Republican majority’s confidence in Trump.

“I mean honestly, it kind of feels like Election Day or Inauguration Day. There’s a job to do,”said Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif. “There’s not a lot of other distractions and events on the calendar.”

The House Freedom Caucus discussed making this week hell for members and effectively “blowing up the House” by objecting to any action on the House floor requiring unanimous consent, including the most mundane, routine procedures. But they backed off that plan because the White House didn’t want to delay impeachment moving out of the Democrat-controlled House and to the more friendly Senate, according to Texas GOP Rep. Randy Weber.

House Republican Conference Vice Chairman Mark Walker of North Carolina said when he talked to his communications team Wednesday morning he advised them to avoid the “smart aleck” tone he often likes to take in his messaging because of the “dark” nature of the day.

“Today is not about being snarky or trying to be funny, [using] memes or anything else. It’s such a somber day,” Walker said, repeating a common Republican refrain that impeachment should not be a partisan undertaking.

Trump did not follow such advice, tweeting in all caps and with four exclamation points: “SUCH ATROCIOUS LIES BY THE RADICAL LEFT, DO NOTHING DEMOCRATS. THIS IS AN ASSAULT ON AMERICA, AND AN ASSAULT ON THE REPUBLICAN PARTY!!!!”

The screed, which followed a six-page letter Trump sent to Pelosi on Tuesday, hardly registered in the House. During the debate Wednesday, a White House staffer delivered a package with that letter and a White House Christmas card to each Senate office, according to Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn.

Most members were resigned to the expected outcome of the vote. Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, one of the floor managers for the Senate impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, said this impeachment has less drama.

“In this one, we know that the Senate is not going to remove him from office, so in many ways we’re kind of going through the motions on this thing,” Chabot said. “And I think it’s unfortunate for the country because it’s so unnecessary.”

Bridget Bowman, Chris Marquette and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.