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We’re on the road to impeachment. Here’s what you need to know about what’s ahead.

Watch for party fractures that could make things more interesting.

- December 12, 2019

The House Judiciary is set to vote Thursday on two articles to impeach President Trump. The first article charges the president with abuse of power for inviting foreign interference — in this case, from Ukrainian officials — into the 2020 U.S. election. The second charges the president with obstructing the congressional investigation of that behavior.

No one doubts that all the committee’s Democrats will vote in favor and all the Republicans will oppose. When the full House votes on the articles — expected before Congress takes its Christmas break — expect a similar outcome. All but a handful of Democrats will probably vote to impeach the president, and every GOP member will probably stand by the president.

Here are three things to expect along the road to impeaching the president.

1. ‘Skinny impeachment’ reflects divided, not unified, Democrats

Most reporting about these articles of impeachment focuses on the extraordinary unity House Democrats have shown in swiftly pursuing impeachment, ever since a whistleblower complaint surfaced in September. But in fact, what shaped these articles is a divide in the Democratic caucus between members from safe and swing districts, including dozens who were elected last year and who, as a result, handed control of the House to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Democrats were divided over how broad or narrow the articles should be. In leadership debates, Pelosi and her allies prevailed in keeping the count to just two articles. Democrats from safe seats wanted to add articles drawn from information in former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. But swing-district Democrats argued that broadening the count to include Trump’s less visible efforts to obstruct justice could put at risk their reelection in Trump-won districts.

That probably wasn’t a hard sell for Pelosi. After all, she did not endorse an impeachment inquiry until late in September, weeks after the whistleblower complaint. Pelosi waited until seven first-term members from swing districts who had national security credentials said they would support such an investigation. When those seven Democrats jumped on board, several dozen of their colleagues — largely from purple, not deep blue, districts — had yet to sign on. Keeping a hold on the House in the 2020 election has been important all year.

2. Impeachment plus trade legislation: It’s a package deal

Pelosi wants to show voters that Democrats can walk and chew gum at the same time. Democrats and the Trump administration’s trade representative had been negotiating for months over the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), Trump’s renegotiated version of NAFTA. Democrats had been insisting that the deal include stronger labor and environmental protections. Exploiting the fact that recess was approaching, Pelosi managed to bring those negotiations to a close at the same time as the narrow impeachment investigation. Doing so, she believes, delivers the message that Democrats can govern as well as impeach.

Some observers argued that giving the president a win on one of his top priorities would undermine Democrats next November; critics expect the president to take full credit for the win and to keep attacking Democrats. What’s more, many suggested that reaching a trade deal with Trump undermines Democrats’ case that the president is unfit to hold office and must be removed.

Exploiting deadlines to secure a deal is hardly a novel tactic. In this case, Pelosi used the pressure of the coming recess to link a narrowly drawn impeachment with a trade deal favored by swing-district Democrats. Pelosi’s move signaled that Democratic control of the House — and her speakership — remain her top priorities. Of course, she might also have wagered that this new NAFTA gives Trump less bang for the buck than he imagines.

3. Look for stress fractures in the Senate, too

Pelosi isn’t the only party leader with a fractious majority to manage. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell also has to mind his divisions. To be sure, most expect the Senate will not convict the president; Democrats are unlikely to persuade the 20 Republican senators they’d need to add to their own votes to send the president home in disgrace.

Senate rules stipulate the basic parameters for a trial, leaving leaders to negotiate the finer details, like whether or which witnesses to call. The Senate’s impeachment rules allow a majority of the Senate to determine these additional details. In 1999, Democratic and Republican leaders negotiated an initial agreement that the Senate unanimously adopted to govern the Clinton impeachment trial. But that unity fractured on the second resolution, leaving a partisan majority to set the final parameters of the trial.

McConnell has said he would consider a deal with the Democratic leader, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), on the trial details. But if they can’t agree, he’ll need to get enough Republicans to agree on how to run the trial. That means he’ll need to persuade some swing-state senators who face voters this coming November. What type of trial would 51 senators agree to?

Senators have already warned the White House that there’s no appetite to put on the big show that Trump is demanding. Nor is it clear that 51 Republicans will support a motion to dismiss the trial before senators reach the votes on whether to convict the president. Of course, the shorter the trial, the more Senate floor time Republicans will have to confirm more federal judges — a top priority for the president and GOP senators who have confirmed scores of young conservative federal judges since 2017.

But the half-dozen or so swing-state senators up for reelection may insist that the trial appear meatier than that, complicating McConnell’s ability to hold his conference together on the trial procedures. If that happens, Democrats could have some influence over trial procedures. Of course, McConnell could use the threat of losing control to the Democrats to keep GOP senators on the same page — and the White House at bay.

The road to impeaching a president has become a remarkably partisan affair, but internal rifts still matter.