Impeachment’s Inevitability Problem

The House Judiciary Committee’s perfunctory vote was likely a preview of next week’s proceedings.

Drew Angerer / Getty

For all the drama of impeachment, there really isn’t much suspense.

That reality was laid bare shortly after 10 this morning, as one by one, 40 members of the House Judiciary Committee solemnly delivered their judgment on the charges against President Donald Trump. All 23 Democrats on the panel voted to recommend articles accusing the president of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, sending them to the full House for consideration next week. All 17 Republicans voted no.

The vote was a formal but long-foreseen conclusion to the 14-hour freewheeling and sharp-edged debate that ended late last night, when Chairman Jerry Nadler abruptly adjourned the committee’s meeting over protests from Republicans who were trying to force Democrats to vote on impeachment in the dark of night. And it was likely also a preview of the outcome next week, when the much larger grand jury of the entire House will decide whether to send the two articles to the Senate for trial. The marathon committee debate was likely Republicans’ last, best chance to try to disrupt, if not derail, the impeachment push.

The House impeachment inquiry began with a highly partisan vote in late October, when not a single Republican joined Democrats to support a resolution on rules governing the investigation. If anything, the divide has only deepened since then. A line of current and former government witnesses attesting to a quid pro quo between Trump and Ukraine, linking foreign aid to an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden, has done little to move either ossified public opinion or Republicans in Congress. In the Intelligence Committee, the lone GOP panel member on the fence, the retiring Representative Will Hurd of Texas, came out against impeachment at the conclusion of the panel’s public hearings. There are no such movable Republicans on the more Trump-aligned Judiciary Committee, making this morning’s vote a formality. And though, officially, there are a few undecided Republicans in the broader conference, GOP leaders have declared with confidence that none will break with the president on either article. (A former Republican turned independent, Representative Justin Amash of Michigan, is for impeachment.)

There is slightly more doubt on the Democratic side. Two House Democrats—Representatives Collin Peterson of Minnesota and Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey—voted in October against launching the inquiry and are likely to oppose the articles of impeachment. A few more Democrats from districts that backed Trump could join them in voting against one or both articles, although not enough that would threaten to sink the vote.

None of those Democrats is on the Judiciary Committee, however, and over 14 hours yesterday, the party’s members on the panel delivered harsh indictments of the president’s conduct as a singular affront to the Constitution. Some, such as Representatives Eric Swalwell of California and Hakeem Jeffries of New York, seemed to be auditioning for the starring roles of impeachment “managers” during the Senate trial next year. Others were simply intent on rebutting the many Republicans who used the debate not only to defend the president but to attack Biden and his son Hunter. When Representative Matt Gaetz, the Trump acolyte from Florida, brought up Hunter Biden’s past drug use as he was offering an amendment, Democratic Representative Hank Johnson of Georgia came back with a thinly veiled warning to the young congressman, who was arrested in 2008 for driving under the influence. “I would say that the pot calling the kettle black is not something that we should do,” Johnson said. “I don’t know what members, if any, have had problems with substance abuse, been busted in a DUI. I don’t know, but if I did, I wouldn’t raise it against anyone on this committee. I don’t think it’s proper.”

Gaetz did not respond.

There is no filibuster in the House, but the light rules of a committee markup—in which lawmakers debate and revise legislation—gave Republicans their best opportunity to hold up the Democrats’ impeachment drive, if only for a day. Members were allowed to offer virtually unlimited amendments to the text of the articles, and once offered, every member of the committee was allowed up to five minutes to weigh in on each proposed change. The result was something of a free-for-all. When Nadler submitted the first change—merely substituting the president’s full middle name, John, for his middle initial in the text of the articles—the ensuing “debate” lasted three hours before the committee adopted the amendment without opposition. All substantive proposals from the Republicans, including attempts to remove the articles of impeachment entirely, were rejected on party-line votes.

If the GOP’s goal in dragging out the meeting was to create some bad optics for the Democrats—by forcing a “midnight vote” on such a weighty matter as impeachment—Nadler sussed it out. He announced just before 11 p.m. eastern time that members would have a chance to “search their consciences” and that the committee would break for the night and return in the morning for the actual vote. Republicans claimed, with dubious sincerity, an ambush. “This is the kangaroo court,” complained Representative Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the committee. “Stalinesque,” chimed in Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas. Their complaints were futile, their limited power to stop impeachment in the House having already been exhausted. Their colleagues next week won’t even have such a chance.

There seemed to be little soul-searching that took place over the next 11 hours. When the committee gaveled back in this morning, each member voted the same way they had been planning to for weeks, and the impeachment process advanced one more significant step toward an outcome that seems ever less in doubt.