The House is scheduled to vote today on a resolution to authorize the public stage of its inquiry into whether President Trump committed impeachable offenses in pressuring Ukraine to investigate his political rivals. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) greenlighted the vote after a concerted GOP campaign to disparage the legitimacy of the House investigation.
But don’t think for a moment that Pelosi has simply caved to GOP pressure for a vote. To be sure, no House or constitutional rule requires the chamber to vote to launch an impeachment inquiry. In that sense, Republicans prevailed. But the resolution advances Pelosi’s goals as speaker more than it meets the demands of her Republican foes.
1. The resolution plays favorites
The resolution assigns the prominent public hearings to Pelosi’s ally, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.). That’s unusual, because historically the Judiciary Committee runs impeachment probes. The resolution does authorize five other committees, including the Judiciary Committee, to continue their own investigations — but specifically directs the Intelligence Committee to conduct them publicly. That means members of the Intelligence Committee (which does not include any of the president’s most vocal defenders) will play the starring role in crafting Democrats’ narrative about whether the president’s conduct rises to an impeachable offense.
Meanwhile, the Judiciary Committee plays second fiddle, waiting for the Intelligence Committee and other panels to hand over their evidence. Only then does the resolution authorize the Judiciary Committee to hold more public hearings, if warranted, to consider and advance articles of impeachment.
By snuffing out a brewing turf war within the House Democratic Caucus, Pelosi’s resolution keeps peace in the family. It puts the caucus on record empowering and keeping Schiff in the limelight, while protecting the Judiciary Committee’s jurisdictional claim to report articles of impeachment. In doing so, Pelosi met demands from her moderate, endangered incumbents, who recoiled from the more visibly partisan Judiciary Committee theatrics in the wake of the report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III this year.
2. Calling Republicans’ bluff
One interpretation of the resolution is that Democrats simply gave in to GOP pressure. After all, Trump and House and Senate Republicans have repeatedly derided the House investigation — in the media and in legal filings in federal court — as unauthorized and thus illegitimate. By authorizing six House committees to continue their investigations into Trump’s behavior, Democrats appeared to concede that point. Again, neither House rules nor the Constitution require such a vote, as a federal judge affirmed last week. But the inquiry’s public legitimacy might demand it.
Still, the resolution does more than authorize the House investigation. It calls Republicans’ bluff by giving them much of what they demanded: public hearings, the right to question witnesses, and parliamentary rights for the president and his lawyers should the Judiciary Committee take up impeachment proceedings. (There’s a catch, though: Should Trump “unlawfully” block committee access to witnesses or documents, the resolution empowers the chair to curtail these procedural rights.)
Granted, Republicans objected immediately to the particular mix of procedural rights. The rules do not open up the ongoing committee depositions to the public, though it authorizes their release. Nor does the resolution grant the minority party the right to subpoena witnesses, absent the support of the chair or a committee majority. But by and large, the rules bear a strong resemblance to procedures used during impeachment proceedings for Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Bill Clinton, especially the rights afforded the president and his lawyers.
Overall, the House resolution undercuts the GOP’s focus on process, daring them to defend the president on substantive grounds.
3. Dividing the GOP
Pelosi’s target might well be Senate Republicans, rather than the House GOP. Of course, House Democrats probably don’t need Republican votes to secure a House majority to impeach the president. Nor are Democrats likely to attract many, if any, GOP votes, or so it seems today.
But Democrats do need to crack the Senate Republican conference should they hope to secure the votes to convict the president. The resolution is one very small step in that direction. To rally Republicans around the president, 50 of the 53 Republican senators had endorsed the nonbinding Senate measure by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) to instruct the House to open a formal impeachment inquiry, afford House GOP members subpoena rights in committee and provide Trump with “due process.”
Careful what you wish for. The announcement of Pelosi’s resolution has stalled the Senate GOP effort. What’s more, Pelosi’s resolution has divided Senate Republicans — some of whom now say their effort is moot.
Graham’s Senate resolution is just theatrics. But Republicans’ indecision over even an innocuous motion reveals that the Senate GOP may have a hard time staying unified. Defending the president will probably require Republicans to take a stand on the president’s conduct. Once again, calling the GOP’s bluff on process leaves Senate Republicans exposed on substance.
4. Most politics is still local
As recently as June, Pelosi had resisted calls from half of her caucus to formally launch an impeachment inquiry — probably because she wanted to protect her most vulnerable members who won in swing and Trump-won districts in 2018. But with revelations of the president’s pressure campaign against the new Ukrainian government and rising public support for an investigation among Democrats and independents, only a few Democrats have yet to endorse an investigation. Holdouts predictably represent GOP-friendly districts where they barely defeated their Republican opponents.
This changing political landscape freed Pelosi to call for a House vote, no longer concerned about protecting her marginal rank-and-file members from voter retribution in 2020. When the House votes, a few Democrats can safely assert independence from their party at little cost to a nearly unified Democratic majority.