Vulnerable Democrats split as impeachment pressure mounts
Freshman Democrats who delivered the House majority are starting to split under impeachment pressure, as a number of those in competitive districts are now warming to the idea of launching proceedings against President Donald Trump.
As the administration continues to stonewall requests for documents — not just surrounding special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, but oversight probes into other agencies and Trump’s finances — Democrats are growing frustrated. Some freshmen are questioning what recourse can be taken other than an impeachment inquiry — a tactic presented by a number of veteran Democratic leaders to strengthen their hand in court.
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“We’re just getting closer and closer to a point where we have to do something,” said Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.), a freshman member of leadership who beat a GOP incumbent last fall. “Each of us is personally struggling because we see on so many levels … where he’s committed impeachable offenses.”
The shift by some creates a divide among the class of vulnerable members into two camps: those who see a moral and constitutional obligation to say Trump’s conduct is unfit for the presidency despite potential political risks, and those who believe impeaching Trump won’t result in his removal — and will only hurt Democrats like them.
Until recently, the majority of Democrats in competitive districts have stayed away from calling for impeachment or even commenting on current investigations. But the growing interest in impeachment among several key battleground members could be a sign that the Democratic caucus as a whole is inching toward taking more drastic action to rebuke Trump — over the objections of their leadership. Multiple vulnerable Democrats privately say that refusing to pursue impeachment could actually hurt their reelection chances by depressing enthusiasm among the party’s base.
The rift demonstrates the near-impossible balance for Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her allies as they attempt to expose what they see as unprecedented misconduct by Trump, without distracting from an ambitious legislative agenda that delivered them the majority.
“The public wants us to do our job, which we are, but it also includes continuing our investigation and the more the Trump administration and the president defies Congress’s Constitutional law the more we’re seeing increasing demand for Congress to take action,” said Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Calif.) who flipped a longtime Republican seat in Orange County in 2018, told POLITICO.
Days later, Rouda went further during an interview on MSNBC, saying he thinks Democrats should “draw a line in the sand.”
“Either honor the subpoenas and the request for documentation by this date, or we will move towards impeachment proceedings,” Rouda said Sunday.
And the administration’s move this week to block former White House counsel Don McGahn from testifying, coupled with the unproductive negotiations over Mueller’s public testimony, have pushed more frontline Democrats to consider an impeachment inquiry, which they argue wouldn’t necessarily lead to an actual vote on the floor.
New Jersey Democrat Tom Malinowski, who is a top Republican target in 2020, plans to decide whether he supports an impeachment inquiry in the coming days.
“I’m going to be cautious, but I think the administration’s actions are pushing us to a point where that may be the only option,” Malinowski said. “The hard question that we’ve been forced to confront is: How do we fulfill our constitutional and moral obligation at a time when Congress is broken by partisanship, and we know that the Senate will not remove him if he shoots a man on 5th Avenue. That’s what a lot of us have been struggling with.”
But while some of the party’s most vulnerable freshmen are warming to the idea, many of the caucus’ moderates, especially those in districts Trump carried in 2016, are privately grateful for Pelosi’s efforts to stamp out talk of impeachment.
Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.), who flipped a Staten Island-based seat that went for Trump by nearly 10 points in 2016, expressed frustration with his fellow battleground-district freshman who are inching toward impeachment.
If Democrats go down that path, Rose said, “then they should warm to the idea of going back to the minority.”
“Right now we’re in this incredibly childish game of impeachment chicken, and everyone has to start acting like adults,” Rose added. “The president needs to listen to Congress. Congress needs to act responsibly — I believe that for the most part it is — and then let’s go back to actually doing the work of the American people that they sent us here to do.”
Several freshmen moderates say they’re anxious that it could drown out all talk of the caucus’s legislative agenda, particularly issues like health care and infrastructure.
“I think impeachment is probably the last decision that we would ever want to make,” said Rep. Jeff Van Drew (D-N.J.). “If there really isn’t something significant enough there to impeach — which I don’t think there is at this point — then let’s move on and get the work of the people done.”
“The thing that I’m concerned about is that we constantly risk losing focus on the legislation that affirmatively helps people’s lives,” added Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), who also acknowledged that the White House’s response is “not going in the right direction right now.”
Even Democrats from safe districts privately worry that mounting talk of impeachment will carry the same political costs today as it did two decades ago for Republicans. They point to 1998, when Democrats defied history in Bill Clinton’s second midterm election and actually gained seats amid a fierce impeachment battle with congressional Republicans.
Pelosi and her top deputies have repeatedly said that the caucus’s decision on how to proceed on impeachment will not be based on the party’s chances in 2020. But House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer acknowledged to reporters Tuesday that the caucus does have to consider political factors.
“To say there’s no political calculus would not be honest for any of us in the Congress,” Hoyer (Md.) said. “The political calculus is, what is the reaction of the American people? What do the American people think we ought to be doing?”
The loudest calls for impeachment, so far, have been mostly confined to members of the House Judiciary Committee — few of whom are expected to face competitive elections back home.
One exception is Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.), who sits on the committee and is also among the caucus’s most vulnerable Democrats. McBath said she talks to her colleagues daily about the political pressures she faces at home on matters like impeachment.
“Specifically, for people like me that are in the kinds of districts that I’m in, impeachment is not something that a lot of people in my district want to talk about,” she said. “But at the same time, I’m tasked with being on this committee to make sure no one is above the law.”
Another Democrat on Judiciary, Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Fla.), who is a GOP target, took a different tack, though she dodged questions about her support for launching an inquiry.
“[Trump is] acting as an authoritarian leader, which I have seen many times in Latin America, and it is very dangerous,” Mucarsel-Powell said. “I want the people living in South Florida, people living in my community, to understand what is written in that report, and we can’t do that unless we have these hearings.”
Heather Caygle and Kyle Cheney contributed reporting.