House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has managed to hold together a Democratic caucus fractured on the issue of impeachment for months — but it’s about to get significantly more challenging.
Over August recess, the number of members who came out in support of some form of action on impeachment reached 137, according to a count from Politico — a number that represents more than 50% of the caucus.
Of that group, 31 members who announced their support for an impeachment inquiry — the process investigating whether the House should conduct impeachment proceedings — only did so once Congress left for recess on July 29. They represent a broad coalition, reflecting the fact that support for action on impeachment has broadened beyond just the progressive wing of the party. Included in that list are members of party leadership, like Assistant Democratic leader Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico who is running for the Senate; committee chairs investigating the Trump Administration like New York Rep. Eliot Engel; freshmen in swing districts like Reps. Lauren Underwood of Illinois and Jason Crow of Colorado; and moderate members like Rep. Brad Schneider of Illinois.
That rising number of Democrats supporting impeachment action has coincided with — or perhaps been the result of — stronger rhetoric and action from the House Judiciary Committee indicating that they are in fact, conducting an impeachment inquiry. Over the summer, the committee filed two lawsuits in federal court, one seeking the grand jury material from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report into Russian interference in the 2016 election and another enforcing the subpoena for former White House Counsel Don McGahn, who failed to appear for Congressional testimony. The prospect of impeachment was central in both of these arguments. “Because Department of Justice policies will not allow prosecution of a sitting President, the United States House of Representatives is the only institution of the Federal Government that can now hold President Trump accountable for these actions,” the filing for the grand jury material reads. “To do so, the House must have access to all the relevant facts and consider whether to exercise its full Article I powers, including a constitutional power of the utmost gravity—approval of articles of impeachment.”
The McGahn filing similarly notes that the committee “is now determining whether to recommend articles of impeachment against the President based on the obstructive conduct described by the Special Counsel,” but needs McGahn’s testimony to make that decision.
Pelosi approved the language in both filings, according to aides, and the strong language they contain seemed to compel more Democrats to support the idea of an inquiry. But with that support comes a heightened awareness of timing. There has always been a sense among some members and aides in the caucus that, if impeachment proceedings were to happen, it would be politically expedient for them to take place before the 2020 election, in part to maximize the focus on the issue. With the Iowa caucuses less than six months away, there will inevitably be more pressure for that decision to be made this fall.
“It would be helpful if we are able to do it before the beginning of [next] year,” says California Rep. Ro Khanna, one of the members who came out in support of an inquiry over recess and thinks Congress should take action this fall. “We don’t want it to get conflated with the political calendar.”
Some in the caucus seemed to scoff at this notion though. “Impeachment always has a political element,” says one Democratic leadership aide. “There are reasons to do it sooner rather than later, but looking too political isn’t one of them”
Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin, a member of the House Judiciary and Oversight committees, says that even if proceedings were to take place next year, the majority of the investigative work in the House should conclude before the primary season ramps up.
“There’s no legal or constitutional problem with conducting an impeachment inquiry or considering articles of impeachment at the same time a presidential election is going on,” Raskin says. “It’s just that there is a limited amount of public and legislative attention. We may be in a situation where impeachment articles are indeed in play at the same time presidential primaries are occurring, but the bulk of the work has got to be done before the primary elections are taking place.”
There are several factors, however, indicating that no major action is imminent. Neither Pelosi nor her top deputies, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, are publicly on board with launching proceedings right now. “We will proceed when we have what we need to proceed, not one day sooner,” Pelosi told reporters at her last press conference before recess when asked if she was trying to run out the clock on this issue. She noted that Congress was investigating areas like Trump’s business dealings that Mueller did not handle and Congress needs to get results. “That is what we are doing in the courts,” she said. “And so I’m willing to take whatever heat there is there to say a decision will be made in a timely fashion.”
There was no indication that Pelosi’s views had evolved over recess. “No,” she told a local reporter in Colorado last month who asked if she was feeling pressure on impeachment, jokingly calling him a troublemaker.
Polling backs up her reluctance. Impeachment still isn’t popular with the public at large, even if the Democratic base continues to push for it. According to a Monmouth poll released Aug. 22, just 35% of Americans think Trump should be impeached and removed from office, and 51% said it was a bad idea for the House Judiciary Committee to conduct an inquiry.
House leadership is fully aware of these statistics. “The public isn’t there on impeachment. It’s your voice and constituency, but give me the leverage I need to make sure that we’re ready and it is as strong as it can be,” Pelosi told members of her caucus on an August conference call, according to an aide.
Perhaps that explains the hesitancy to back an inquiry from the members facing tough re-election fights. Of the 42 members in the “frontline program” — lawmakers most vulnerable in their re-election campaigns — fewer than 10 have come out in support of an inquiry — a growing number to be sure, but still not a majority.
But there is also a busy legislative agenda. While Democrats have repeatedly touted their ability to “walk and chew gum at the same time” — i.e. legislate and investigate — the fall calendar is heavy on must-pass priorities. The agreement on border security funding that Trump approved to end last year’s shutdown expires Sept. 30, and some Democrats are advocating that they give no money to border wall funding, setting up the fault lines for what could be a major battle. If the White House sends its replacement for the North American Free Trade Agreement to Congress, they will have just 90 days ratify it. And there is also still a chance, however slight, that the Senate votes on it’s own gun control bill, which would then need to pass the House.
One Dmocratic leadership aide said the focus in the fall would be highlighting the legal victories Democrats have had in the courts, even as Trump tries to stonewall investigations — a direct counter to claims from the liberal base that Democrats are not doing enough.
And for the members in moderate districts most vulnerable for re-election, it is crucial that they take bills that have actually become law back to their home districts, making impeachment — which many think would become all-consuming — even less palatable. “It’s toxic to do impeachment when the House hasn’t passed major, bipartisan infrastructure or drug pricing legislation,” says one senior Democratic aide associated with the moderate wing of the party. “The members who flipped districts red to blue in 2018 campaigned on getting those things done for their constituents. They’re focused on fulfilling those promises and bringing back real results for their districts.”