WASHINGTON (CN) — A powerful House panel on Tuesday set the terms for what is likely to be a bitter debate on the chamber’s floor tomorrow over whether to make President Donald Trump the third U.S. president ever impeached.
After a marathon hearing Tuesday, the House Rules Committee voted to give the articles of impeachment six hours of debate on the House floor on Wednesday, during which time members will make their final statements ahead of a historic vote.
The six hours will be divided evenly between the parties. Lawmakers will also have one hour to debate the rule itself before voting to adopt it, effectively giving the articles a total of seven hours of time on the House floor.
Republicans sought to give the articles 12 hours of debate, but Rules Committee Chair James McGovern said six hours would be sufficient and speculated the debate will drag on well beyond the time the rule allows.
Shifting from the stately chamber inside the Longworth Building where weeks of public testimony unfolded to the far smaller House Rules Committee room inside the U.S. Capitol, Democrats and Republicans went head-to-head Tuesday over how they wish to see debate procedures unfold on the floor of the House of Representatives.
The Rules Committee is a powerful panel that sets the terms of debate for bills that come to the floor without overwhelming support. The rules the committee crafts determine how long a bill can be debated on the House floor and whether or which amendments can be offered.
The panel is stacked heavily in favor of the majority party, currently with a 9-4 majority in favor of Democrats. Because of the influence the panel wields over how the consideration of bills takes place, the committee is sometimes called “The Speaker’s Committee.”
Before the committee approved the rule just after 9 p.m. on Tuesday, its members spent nearly 10 hours rehashing the debates that have consumed Congress in recent months as the House’s impeachment inquiry has gone on.
Congressman James McGovern, the committee’s chairman, called it shocking that his Republican colleagues would not criticize what Trump did in Ukraine.
“The president of the United States is rolling out the welcome mat for that kind of foreign interference,” McGovern said to begin the day’s proceedings. “The evidence is clear as it is overwhelming.”
Some two decades ago, McGovern had opposed the impeachment of then-President Bill Clinton in the House. But unlike today’s Republicans, McGovern said, he conceded that what the president did was wrong.
Representative Tom Cole, the committee’s top Republican, emphasized that a Senate dominated by his party will not remove Trump from office.
“The votes to remove the president simply aren’t there,” Cole noted. “Bluntly put, this is a matter Congress can’t resolve on its own.”
The articles of impeachment against President Trump, including abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, were established by the House Judiciary Committee after a rancorous marathon voting session split over two days last week.
Tuesday’s hearing, spearheaded by House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, is not expected to be a day-and-a-half-long slog. The Massachusetts Democrat said in an earlier interview with MSNBC ahead that he was devoted to protecting the process and avoiding a circus-like atmosphere.
The Rules Committee is known for its fierce partisan acrimony, however, and Republicans and Democrats remained steadfastly divided after several hours of back-and-forth testimony over the allegations underpinning Trump’s impeachment.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, speaking on Tuesday from the Senate floor ahead of the Rules Committee hearing, said Democrats could “avoid setting this toxic new precedent” by voting not to impeach Trump.
“If the House Democrats’ case is this deficient, this thin, the answer is not for the judge and jury to cure it, over here in the Senate,” McConnell said, referring to a suggestion by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer Sunday night, for more witnesses to appear during trial “The answer is the House should not impeach on this basis in the first place.”
Over the weekend, Senate Republican leaders openly announced their intentions to coordinate with the White House on a trial that would inevitably lead to an acquittal and prevent the disclosure of any evidence that would embarrass President Trump.
That strategy to preordain the Senate trial did not prevent House Republicans from making procedural complaints against House Democrats, among them, alleging that the closed-door testimony that preceded the open hearings created what they called a kangaroo court.
Representative Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat perceived to be a contender for impeachment manager, noted that former special counsel Ken Starr’s investigation employed the same methods.
“There were closed-door, secret depositions there,” Raskin said, before adding that House Committees worked hard in the Trump proceedings to make the testimony public.
To date, Democrats have provided access to thousands of pages of testimony by 17 witnesses in proceedings that lasted over 100 hours.
Countering Republican complaints that the articles of impeachment do not allege crimes, Raskin emphasized the difference between the roles of Congress and the Department of Justice.
“We are not criminal prosecutors prosecuting a criminal defendant in court to send him to jail,” Raskin said.
Some future prosecutors, Raskin continued, might use those articles of impeachment as a guide for criminal charges.
During his opening remarks, Chairman McGovern asserted that the evidence was not as thin as the majority leader contends. Instead, the impeachment of President Trump, he argued, responds directly to the uncontested facts of Trump’s conduct with Ukraine’s President Volodomyr Zelensky, as born out in a summary of their July 25 phone call.
McGovern, and other Democrats in the House, argue Trump’s refusal to meet with Zelesnky unless he publicly announce investigations into Trump’s likely 2020 election rival Joe Biden jeopardized U.S. national security, violated the public trust and undermined democracy.
“History is testing us, we can’t control what the Senate will do, but each of us can decide whether we pass that test — whether we defend our democracy and whether we uphold our oath,” McGovern said in his opening remarks. “Today we’ll put a process in place to consider these articles on the House floor. And when I cast my vote in favor, my conscience will be clear.”
Cole, an Oklahoma Republican, dismissed the notion of needing to clear his conscience at all. He said Democrats are not interested in putting a check on power, but rather are hellbent on appeasing those voters who did not vote for Trump in 2016 and likely will not vote for him again in 2020.
“Regardless of the damage it does to the institution or how much further it divides the country,” Cole said. “This is a sad day for all of us. This day was inevitable and preordained from the start. No matter what happened, no matter where the investigations led.”
Rather than wrestling over the specific rules for the inevitable vote on the House floor, Republicans used the first two hours of Tuesday’s hearing primarily to challenge the very premise of Trump’s impeachment.
The assault on the investigatory process used by Democrats in the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence came from Cole and Representative Doug Collins, the ranking minority member of the Judiciary Committee who also served as a witness Tuesday before the committee.
Both lawmakers spotlighted how House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff had not been called to testify. Schiff, the Republican lawmakers argued, additionally refused to discuss the report with minority members.
Collins dismissed the overarching investigation as a “political drive-by” and a “political hit job” on the presidency. He also repeatedly claimed that the inquiry doubled as a dragnet for Republicans who dare show unabashed support for Trump like California Republican Representative Devin Nunes.
During one tense moment Tuesday, Cole pointedly asked Raskin how Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee were able to determine through telephone logs that Nunes had contact with the now-indicted Lev Parnas, an associate of Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.
Though Raskin said he had no idea how Nunes was identified, in the end, questions like those from GOP members about the level of involvement of Trump associates such as Giuliani could have been resolved in short order — and weeks ago.
“The president of the United States was given the opportunity to call any witnesses he wants … but of course, he didn’t want to because all of them told the exact same pieces of the story: the shakedown of President Zelesnky at the expense of former Vice President Joe Biden,” Raskin said.
While the meeting unfolded, President Trump issued a letter of protest to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Trump called the inquiry into his misconduct an “unprecedented and unconstitutional abuse of power by Democrat Lawmakers.”
The six-page letter addresses both charges against him outlined in the articles of impeachment: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. What is really at issue, Trump alleges, is dissatisfaction by Democrats who are “unwilling and unable to accept the verdict issued at the ballot box during the great election of 2016.”
“There is nothing I would rather do than stop referring to your party as the Do-Nothing Democrats. Unfortunately, I don’t know that you will ever give me the chance to do so,” Trump wrote. “You are the ones interfering in America’s elections. You are the ones subverting America’s Democracy. You are the ones obstructing justice.”
The president also accused the speaker — who is technically third in line for the presidency of the United States — of suffering from “full fledged … Trump Derangement Syndrome.” He said more due process in the Salem witch trials, a 17th century prosecution in which in roughly 200 people being accused of practicing witchcraft. Twenty people were executed as a result of trials, where confessions were produced with torture and nearly all of the defendants — largely women and girls — had zero access to legal counsel.
As the hearing unfolded in the Capitol, Democrat representatives hailing from 2016 Trump-voter strongholds around the U.S. signaled their intent for the coming impeachment vote.
Representative Kendra Horn — a Democrat elected in Oklahoma’s 5th District, which predominantly voted for Trump in 2016 — said she would support impeachment because no president, regardless of party, should ask a foreign country to put their finger on the scale of our democracy.
“The articles of impeachment before us allege an abuse of power and an obstruction of Congress. Inviting foreign interference in our elections strikes at the heart of our democracy, threatens our national security and is an abuse of power,” Horn said Tuesday.
Iowa Representative Abby Finkenauer also announced Tuesday her intent to vote yes on the articles when they eventually reach the House floor. Finkenauer said the decision “is not and was never about politics.”
“It’s about facts, dignity in public service, and honoring those who fought and continue to fight to protect our sacred democracy,” Finkenauer said.
In South Carolina, Representative Joe Cunningham’s district favored Trump for president by 13 points in 2016, but the Democratic congressman said Monday he would vote to impeach to set a precedent for future presidents.
Representative Matt Cartwright said voting for impeachment, even if his decision was unpopular, was in constituents’ interests. The Democrat hails from Pennsylvania’s 8th district, an area that all but split its 2016 presidential vote between Trump and Hillary Clinton.
Only one Democratic member elected in a Republican-dominated district has yet to voice their support of impeachment: Representative Ron Kind from Wisconsin.
Representative Jared Golden of Maine voiced his support to vote for one of the articles: abuse of power.
Golden, whose state was only one of two to split its electoral votes in 2016, said Tuesday he would vote against the article of obstruction.