On Tuesday afternoon, House Democrats released the text of a bill that would give Republicans more or less what they’ve been demanding for a month: a formal affirmation of the existing impeachment inquiry, along with a defined set of procedures that would govern its next, public stages. The bill would give the minority a chance to at least suggest subpoenas or witnesses, though they ultimately would need to be approved by committee votes. It would allow the president’s counsel to participate in impeachment proceedings, once those proceedings advance to the Judiciary Committee. And it would put Democratic members on the record on impeachment, for the first time—something that not all Democrats, even with the improved polling behind impeachment, are excited about.
With Democrats having met their demand to formalize the inquiry with the blessing of a House vote—scheduled for Thursday—Republicans moved to their next phase of attacking the process. Various metaphors about the inability to put toothpaste back in the tube, or un-poison the well, or unscrew a screw (you can’t?) were issued and could not be un-issued. With the House having conducted depositions behind closed doors for weeks, as Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks says, all of the evidence they had collected was already “tainted.” The Republicans had asked for a vote and would be getting a vote, yes, but now it was too late.
“The way it’s designed is to give [Intelligence Committee Chairman] Adam Schiff the microphone and keep justice and due process away from everybody else,” North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows told me about the resolution after its release on Tuesday. I noted that, in terms of questioning witnesses during public hearings, the text offers Schiff and the ranking member, California Rep. Devin Nunes, equal time of up to 45 minutes each.
“Well, in terms of the 90 minutes, but not equal time in terms of who you can call, witnesses you can call, the right to subpoena equal documents, and so forth,” he said. It’s true: The committee majority will have more power than the minority and can reject, by committee vote, the minority’s requests to call witnesses or issue subpoenas. That, however, is in line with the only recent impeachment precedent of 1998. When I presented this to Meadows, he veered away.
“Well, obviously, Nancy Pelosi is saying this is not an impeachment process, I think is what she’s saying, right?”
Meadows’ evasion touched on what was, at the moment, a live Democratic mess: their inability to explain exactly what they will be holding a vote on, and why they are holding a vote at all.
Democratic leaders have said that this vote only sets up procedures for the next step of the impeachment process and doesn’t formalize the existing process, since there’s no need. But the resolution, as the fact sheet from its own authors states, “makes clear that the investigating committees have been engaged in an impeachment inquiry and directs them to continue their vital work.”
And even though the text is—explicitly, obviously, what-else-would-it-be-doing?-ly—setting up procedures for the impeachment process, Democratic leaders were noticeably touchy about reporters calling it an “impeachment resolution” as shorthand.
“This is not an impeachment resolution. I don’t know what an impeachment resolution is,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters Tuesday. “This is about process after we move out of the investigative phase, which we’ve been in, into a phase where we have public hearings. That’s what it is.”
Debating the press over semantics about what, exactly, they would vote on was not how Democrats had hoped to spend a morning when they were taking another damning deposition, this time from someone who was on President Donald Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in July.
Democrats are sensitive to how the legislation is described because they don’t want the public to think that they’re voting on actual impeachment right now, as opposed to a procedure setting up the continuation of the process. They also don’t want to scare off some of their own members. There are only a few votes in play on either side—but each side is trying to lock up every last one of those votes, to prevent the other from claiming, thinly, that their argument has “bipartisan” support.
The task is more challenging for Democrats, a handful of whom still do not support the inquiry, than Republicans, none of whom support the inquiry. But even the Democrats’ early results were mostly successful. South Carolina Rep. Joe Cunningham, who had not supported the inquiry, said he would vote for the resolution, as did centrist Reps. Jared Golden of Maine and Ron Kind of Wisconsin. New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew, however, said he was leaning against it.
“That’s pretty consistent with where I’ve been all along,” he said.
Republicans, meanwhile, are formally whipping against the bill—and not having to whip that hard. The only member I could think of who might really consider breaking with the party to vote for it was Florida Rep. Francis Rooney, who expressed real concerns about the president’s conduct with Ukraine and then promptly announced his retirement, freeing him to behave like a normal human being for the next year. Sure enough, when I looked onto the House floor during a vote Tuesday, he was being buttonholed by Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana.
“They would rather have all the Republicans in a row on this for this vote, and deny the idea of bipartisanship,” Rooney told me after the vote. “I just want to read it, think about it, and decide what to do.”
Who else? Maybe Michigan Rep. Fred Upton? Senior, normal Republican, district turning blue, has shown a willingness to vote regularly against Trump this Congress, not super happy about Trump’s behavior toward Ukraine? Fred? Fred?
“I’m a no,” Upton told me Wednesday, one night after being pictured sitting with Trump during a fundraiser at the president’s D.C. hotel.
As each side air-sealed their caucuses on Wednesday, the House Rules Committee—the only committee to consider the resolution—debated the bill. No Republican amendment, of course, stood a chance, and for nearly two hours the committee voted along party lines to reject each idea Republicans could conjure. One, for example, sought to eliminate the Intelligence Committee (and Schiff entirely) from the impeachment process.
One of the finer points Republicans complained about during the open hearings was the provision that allowed the chairman and ranking member the ability to yield their questioning times only to staff, and not to other members. GOP Rep. Rob Woodall of Georgia, using the in my X years in Congress I’ve never seen anything like this language that Republicans are commonly throwing around these days, asked the Rules Committee chairman, Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern, to defend it.
“Giving members more time,” McGovern said, “is a little overrated.”