Amid Bitter Debate, House Committee Plots Course for Impeachment Inquiry

The Capitol at sunset in Washington on Jan. 24, 2019. (AP file photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (CN) – If the committee chairman tasked with sorting out rules for a resolution that will outline the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump has anything to say about equal speaking time for lawmakers during congressional hearings, it’s that it’s “overrated.”

The remark by House Rules Committee chairman Jim McGovern was made in jest and preciously delivered to mutual laughs from Democratic and Republican lawmakers after nearly two hours of bitter debate over how the president’s impeachment inquiry – and congressional questioning of witnesses in particular – will unfold.

The resolution outlines how proceedings will work among the six participating committees which include the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, Oversight, Ways and Means and the House Judiciary committees – the last being the body with authority to advance articles of impeachment to the Senate.

For Republicans on the Rules Committee, the resolution in its current ideation insults the president’s due process rights because while Trump is afforded the right to ask questions, review evidence, have counsel present and attend hearings for matters seated in the Judiciary Committee, he will not have all of the same privileges within the House Intelligence Committee.

“When was the last time you saw a crime suspect sitting in a grand jury?” Florida Democrat Rep. Alcee Hastings said to Texas Republican Rep. Michael Burgess during a moment of particularly heated debate. “It wouldn’t happen. The president will get his due if there are articles of impeachment.”

The House Intelligence Committee is where much of the investigation is housed, so there must be some limitation on just how much access the man at the center of that investigation will have, Democrats argued.

Arizona Republican Rep. Debbie Lesko railed against House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff, saying the California Democrat is not a special counsel and that the resolution imbued him with unfair powers which Republicans “never had a chance” to debate in committee before the resolution was brought up.

Special counsels were assigned in the impeachment investigations of former Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, but Chairman McGovern said that ship had long sailed for Trump.

“Well, the Department of Justice declined to investigate this matter and the department did not appoint a special counsel, so we were left to investigate,” he said.

Republican Rep. Bob Woodall of Georgia proposed unwinding the resolution significantly when he offered an amendment to strip the House Intelligence Committee – and Schiff – out of the investigation completely by granting sole authority over witness subpoenas and testimony to the House Judiciary Committee.

Woodall’s amendment met the same fate as several other Republican measures on Wednesday: it was quickly voted down given the Democrats’ 9-4 majority on the committee.

Burgess pitched another ill-fated amendment which demanded the Financial Services and Ways and Means committees, respectively, produce a report detailing the scope of their investigations in order to participate in the inquiry.

“It is unclear why these two committees are included in the list of committees. The only attempt I see is to uncover an impeachable offense in Trump’s tax returns,” Burgess said. “It’s a fishing expedition.”

The Democrats opposed the amendment, perhaps none more energetically than Colorado Rep. Ed Perlmutter.

“This is not a fishing expedition. In fact, the federal courts have said to the administration and to Trump, directly, turn over the documents. Turn over the documents on your tax returns and turn over the documents from Deutsche Bank as it pertains to money that came from Russia. Yet despite orders to turn over those documents, the administration continues to withhold them,” he said.

The statement triggered a fraught back-and-forth on due process rights. Burgess said at least four times Trump was within his rights to appeal the decision and in the process, keep the documents private.

“You may be right, but this is the Congress’ prerogative; these requests have been supported by the courts and are legitimate requests that were made and we will continue to make,” Perlmutter said.

The impeachment inquiry started just a month ago after a whistleblower filed a complaint suggesting Trump withheld military aid from Ukraine in exchange for investigations by Ukrainian officials into political rival and former Vice President Joe Biden, Biden’s son Hunter and Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy firm that counted Hunter as a board member.

This is only the fourth time the U.S. has weighed presidential impeachment in its history. Two weeks of closed-door depositions have elicited a daily onslaught of irate tweets from the president, prompted Republicans to storm a secure room and bring cellphones into a classified area, and created ever sharper divides in public opinion about what comes next in the inquiry.

A FiveThirtyEight poll this week showed Democrats and Republicans are cleaved along party lines with 84% of Democrats voting in favor of impeachment but just 11% of Republicans joining them. Independents are not entirely sold with just 46% favoring impeachment.

Ahead of the rules hearing, Alvin Tillery, associate professor of political science at Northwestern University, said it’s important to remember that while the impeachment inquiry may one day end with a trial in the Senate, the impeachment process is not a court proceeding.

“It’s a political proceeding. The Republicans have a right to grandstand and distract from this really damning case. I don’t think Americans should expect the sanctity you would see in a courtroom,” he said.

With the resolution likely to pass in the House Thursday – Democratic aides reported the party was in good position late Wednesday night – Tillery said Democrats needn’t worry too much about a “big strategy” moving forward.

“The facts do most of the talking,” he said. ‘Just put these incredibly talented civil servants up and let them say what they said in [closed] deposition in public.”

As for Republicans who are stuck on critiquing the process of the inquiry but have yet to get into content more meaningfully, Tilley said may want to reconsider.

“Republicans wanted process. Now they’ve got it. The question is, what are they going to do with it?” he said.

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