As the mostly progressive Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee delivered impassioned statements on Wednesday arguing why Donald Trump should be the third President in U.S. history to be impeached, some of their more moderate — and more politically vulnerable — colleagues were touting bipartisan agreements they had reached on legislation that the President will soon sign into law.
The split screen optics were a window onto a dynamic that has been playing out all week in Congress. As Democrats gear up for a historic vote to impeach Trump, centrist members of the caucus, several of whom hail from districts that voted for Trump in 2016 and where impeachment isn’t the most popular have been racking up legislative wins on key agenda items like trade and prescription drugs. These victories may prove crucial for their 2020 re-election prospects as they face what could be the most consequential vote of their tenure next week when articles of impeachment inevitably reach the House floor.
On Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that, after months of negotiations with the White House, Democrats had reached an agreement with the White House on a revised version United States Mexico Canada trade agreement (USMCA), a top priority for Democrats in swing districts where voters could benefit.
On Wednesday, the House easily passed its $738 billion National Defense Authorization Act, the military spending bill for fiscal year 2020. While some of the most vocal progressive lawmakers opposed the bill, in part because of the high level of military spending, it included bipartisan legislative priorities from the moderate wing of the caucus, like sanctions on Chinese pharmaceutical companies to halt fentanyl trafficking, and is expected to easily pass the Senate and be signed into law by Trump.
And on Thursday, Democrats passed their third signature bill that would lower prescription drug prices, preventing an insurrection from the progressive wing by incorporating their requests expanding some provisions into an additional amendment. Although the bill is unlikely to pass the Senate, it still represents a top legislative priority for all factions of the Democratic caucus.
While some of these bills were due to timing, it undoubtedly provides cover as impeachment dominates headlines. For freshman lawmakers like Rep. Anthony Brindisi, who represents a district in upstate New York that Trump won by over 15 points in 2016 and whose political future arguably lies with independent voters sick of the partisanship in Washington, these victories were a welcome reprieve from the usual stalemate.
“Constituents back home want to see us working together. And I think by passing USMCA next week, coming to that deal this week, [and] getting NDAA done on a bipartisan basis, those are huge wins,” Brindisi told reporters Thursday. “In a district like mine they want us compromising and getting stuff done.”
“These are these are things that the Republicans promised that they would do. And we’re actually doing it,” boasted Rep. Max Rose, another freshman lawmaker from a district that supported Trump overwhelmingly three years ago. “And I’m just proud …to be showing the American people that our word means something.”
Republicans have been trying to weaponize impeachment by arguing that Democrats are prioritizing investigations over legislation. Democrats believe this week’s votes undermines that case.
“We made a list of all the major questions come in and concerns coming into my office, and a lot of them incorrectly posed it as an either/or. You’re either focusing on impeachment and so you’re not doing USMCA,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin, another freshman lawmaker who flipped a Trump district. “So it’s obviously very helpful to be able to come home and say, look we have agreed to it…we’ve made a real breakthrough here.”
Of course, any satisfaction these legislative victories offered was tempered by the knowledge that within just a few days these freshmen will have to take the toughest vote of their short careers.
Although all three supported the resolution laying out the details of the impeachment inquiry in October along with other moderates as of Wednesday they said they were still undecided on how they will vote on impeachment on the House floor. Brindisi was among the group of lawmakers who huddled on Monday to discuss alternative options to impeachment, such as formally censuring the President rather than seeking to remove him from office, although Pelosi ruled that idea out months ago. Slotkin said her office has received so many calls on both sides of the fence on this issue that they’ve had to install a third phone line. They all plan to spend the weekend ruminating to try and reach a decision.
“As I’ve said over and over again, it is the second most serious thing that I could do as a member of Congress, second only to declaring war. And so we have got to give this decision the level of seriousness that it is deserving of,” said Rose.