House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
The House on Thursday took a historic vote to set ground rules for its fast-moving impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump — a move that essentially starts the clock for an eventual decision on whether to oust the president.
Thursday’s vote — roughly along party lines — was partly intended to neutralize a frequent GOP attack line that Democrats hadn’t formalized the probe.
But congressional Republicans only intensified their attacks against Democrats, with GOP leaders lashing out against what they see as a rapidly escalating effort to impeach Trump and “overturn” the 2016 election.
For Democrats, it was a somber day that carried significant political weight: Speaker Nancy Pelosi delivered an impassioned floor speech — standing besides an American flag and reading from the Constitution — before personally presiding over the vote.
“What is at stake, in all of this, is nothing less than our democracy,” Pelosi declared.
In a significant show of support for the effort, Democrats lost just two of their 234 members on the resolution vote: Rep. Jeff Van Drew (D-N.J.), a vocal impeachment critic, and Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), a moderate whose district went for Trump by 30 points.
House Republicans — Trump’s first line of defense against impeachment — used the moment to firmly draw battle lines against the Democrats’ investigations into whether Trump improperly pressured a foreign power to assist him in his reelection bid by digging up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden.
There had been speculation that some centrist Republicans might buck their leadership and vote with Democrats to initiate impeachment proceedings against Trump. Less than 24 hours before the vote, retiring Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.) said he didn’t know how he was going to vote.
But House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) ultimately kept his entire caucus in line, with help from a fierce GOP whip operation in recent days.
After the vote, dozens of Republicans gathered for a press conference in the Capitol that felt, at times, like a Trump rally. The top three Republican leaders each delivered sharply worded remarks in front of a bank of cameras, taking turns hammering Pelosi, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and the media.
“Release the damn transcripts!” said Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), as his colleagues cheered and clapped behind him. “Bring it on about substance!”
White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham on Thursday blasted the House’s resolution, saying in a statement that Pelosi and Democrats “have done nothing more than enshrine unacceptable violations of due process into House rules.”
“The Democrats want to render a verdict without giving the Administration a chance to mount a defense,” she said.
Democrats have stressed that the measure was in no way a vote to impeach Trump or a judgment on his ultimate fate. They said it was simply a move to establish a process for public hearings moving forward.
But the floor vote — the House’s first on impeachment — signals to most on Capitol Hill that a House vote on articles of impeachment is looming, even as Democratic investigators say that they have reached no conclusions yet.
And Democrats also signaled they’re increasingly unafraid of a potential political backlash over impeaching Trump. Pelosi had resisted impeachment following the lengthy investigation by former special counsel Robert Mueller, and insisting that she wouldn’t go there unless there was Republican support.
Yet the Ukraine scandal — which has exploded over the last two months — has proven much more damaging to Trump. Polls show support for impeaching Trump has grown, especially among Democrats and independents, easing fears among party strategists.
“We take no joy in having to move down this road and having to proceed with the impeachment inquiry, but neither do we shrink from it,” Schiff said at a press conference flanked by several other Democratic chairs after Thursday’s vote.
“I make no prejudgement as to where that remedy will be warranted when we finish these hearings. I will wait until all the facts are put forward,” Schiff added, though he left before taking questions on precisely how the inquiry would move forward.
Democratic investigators have eight witnesses still scheduled to appear during a House recess next week, though it’s unclear how many will testify. It could mark the final week of closed-door depositions, with public hearings beginning as soon as the second week of November.
Ahead of Thursday’s vote, Pelosi and other top Democrats spent time acknowledging the somber circumstances as the caucus moves closer to making a decision that only two Congresses in history have before made: whether to impeach the president.
At a caucus meeting this week, Pelosi referenced writings by founding fathers like Alexander Hamilton, and then asked Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) to lead the caucus in a prayer, where he asked for guidance, strength and courage, according to multiple members.
House Republicans, meanwhile, have been furious at the details of the resolution, though they had been calling on Democrats to formalize their process on the floor for weeks.
The resolution does spell out certain due process rights provided to Trump once the probe moves into the public domain, but Republicans note they are constrained by Democratic chairmen.
For instance, Republicans may request to call witnesses and issue subpoenas at Intelligence Committee hearings, but the requests can be vetoed by Schiff — a similar arrangement to previous impeachment proceedings.
Trump and his legal team will also be able to mount a defense and cross-examine witnesses in the House Judiciary Committee, which will draft any articles of impeachment. But those actions will also need to be approved by Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.).
“The House Intelligence Committee has ceased to exist,” Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said on the floor Thursday. “We now have a full-fledged impeachment committee in the basement of the Capitol.”
Democrats’ seemingly abrupt decision to announce and vote on the resolution this week had initially rankled some members of the caucus, particularly those in Trump strongholds who have worked to avoid any mention of impeachment.
A number of vulnerable Democrats complained that their caucus had rolled out the resolution without adequately explaining the rationale, though they ultimately backed it on the floor.
For several Democrats, it was the first time they publicly endorsed the impeachment inquiry. That includes Reps. Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.), Kendra Horn (D-Okla.), Jared Golden (D-Maine) and Joe Cunningham (D-S.C.).
“I think the vote will allow a fair and open process and will finally let Americans judge for themselves,” Brindisi told the Syracuse Post-Standard ahead of the vote.
Melanie Zanona contributed.