The House Judiciary Committee on Thursday is taking a major step forward to impeaching President Donald Trump as it works to approve the articles of impeachment and send them to the House floor for a full chamber vote expected next week.
The messy legislative sausage-making prompted a debate over the President's conduct and the impeachment proceedings themselves, as Republicans sought to poke holes and do away altogether with the impeachment articles against the President.
Lawmakers sparred at length over an amendment to remove the entire first article, charging Trump with abuse of power, from the impeachment resolution, and scores more amendments from Republicans were expected Thursday in a debate that could last late into the day.
The committee process for debating and approving the articles is used for hundreds of pieces of legislation on Capitol Hill each year, but Thursday's debate is as contentious as ever with a vote by the full House to remove the President from office potentially less than a week away.
The committee debate follows the Democratic introduction of two articles of impeachment against the President, charging him with abuse of power for pressuring Ukraine to investigate his political rivals while withholding US security aid and a White House meeting, and obstruction of Congress for refusing to cooperate in any manner with the impeachment inquiry into his conduct.
Thursday's committee vote to approve the articles sets the stage for a vote on the House floor that is likely to make Trump the third president in US history to be impeached. Democratic leadership sources say they could lose more than at least two moderate Democrats on the impeachment votes, but there's no concern about major defections that could endanger the articles.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she is not lobbying moderates on the fence to vote for impeachment.
"People have to come to their own conclusions," Pelosi said.
The speaker said the facts are clear, and she isn't concerned about losing more Democrats on the articles of impeachment than the two who voted against the resolution establishing procedures for the inquiry. "People will vote the way they vote," she said.
While the White House did not participate in the House impeachment proceedings, Trump weighed in on the debate Thursday, tweeting that two Democrats were misconstruing his call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which the US President he asked for an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.
"Dems Veronica Escobar and Jackson Lee purposely misquoted my call," Trump said. "I said I want you to do us (our Country!) a favor, not me a favor. They know that but decided to LIE in order to make a fraudulent point! Very sad."
House Republican leaders are lobbying their members on the House floor to oppose impeachment, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise said in an email to House Republicans, as Republicans work to keep the number of GOP defections on impeachment at zero.
A free-wheeling committee debate
Thursday's debate was free-wheeling, as any committee member can offer an amendment to the impeachment articles and every lawmaker can speak up to debate it.
The first Republican amendment, introduced by GOP Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, simply removed the first impeachment article from the resolution.
"Article one in this resolution ignores the truth, ignores the facts, it ignores what happened and what has been laid out for the American people over the last three weeks," Jordan said.
Democrats responded that Republicans were ignoring the President's misconduct, continuing the partisan debate over impeachment that began on Wednesday night when every lawmaker on the 41-member committee delivered an opening statement.
"The President committed the highest crime against the Constitution by abusing his office," said Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat. "Cheating in an election, inviting foreign interference for a purely personal gain while jeopardizing our national security and the integrity of our elections."
Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida shot back that the impeachment resolution didn't include any crimes. "They have to say abuse of power because they have no evidence for bribery or treason," he said.
The impeachment debate even veered back two decades, as two lawmakers who were on the Judiciary Committee when President Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998 debated the merits of that case compared to the current impeachment proceedings.
"I would just like to note that the argument that somehow, lying about a sexual affair is an abuse of presidential power, but the misuse of presidential power to get a benefit somehow doesn't matter -- if it's lying about sex, we could put Stormy Daniels' case ahead of us," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat who was also a congressional staffer during the impeachment proceedings against President Richard Nixon. "We don't believe that's a high crime and misdemeanor."
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican who was an impeachment manager in 1998, argued there was a clear crime in the Clinton impeachment.
"The important thing is, is that Bill Clinton lied to a grand jury. That is a crime," Sensenbrenner said. "The article of impeachment that passed the House accused Bill Clinton of lying to a grand jury, a crime, and something that obstructs the ability of the courts to get to the truth. This is not what is happening here. Big difference."
Republicans have no ability to change the text of the articles or stop them without Democratic votes. But for each amendment, every member has the opportunity to speak for five minutes -- meaning Republicans can extend the committee meeting as long as they want to keep talking.
Republicans also detailed their process complaints about the impeachment proceedings. Rep. Doug Collins demanded House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler agree to hold a Republican hearing day before moving forward, but his objection was defeated along party lines.
"This committee has become nothing but a rubber stamp," Collins said. "This committee is amazingly now on such a clock and calendar process that they don't care -- facts be damned."
Rep. Ted Deutch, a Florida Democrat, responded that Republicans did get witnesses — and that the President's legal team chose not to participate.
"It's worth pointing out to my colleagues on the other side that we invited the President of the United States to the December 4 hearing to advocate for his views, to submit requested witnesses, but he chose not to attend, and he chose not to suggest any witnesses," Deutch said.
Committee vote sets up House to impeach Trump next week
House Democratic leaders have not said yet when the impeachment articles will go to the floor, but a vote is expected next week, along with votes to fund the government and hand the President a significant win by approving the new US trade deal.
When the impeachment resolution comes to the floor, the House will take separate votes on each article of impeachment. Two Democratic leadership sources say it's possible they could lose more than two Democrats — the number who voted against the procedural vote on the impeachment inquiry in October — when the floor vote takes place.
Those two Democrats, Reps. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey and Colin Peterson of Minnesota, have already said they will vote against the impeachment articles. At the same time, Democrats are likely to pick up independent Justin Amash of Michigan.
But the sources acknowledge they could lose a handful more from swing districts on either or both articles. Many vulnerable members are not saying what they'll do yet, as they had back to their districts this weekend and get feedback from voters.
Democrats are not expecting mass defections and they expect to have more than enough votes for final passage.
Two other Democratic leadership sources say they are not planning to whip their members on the floor vote on the articles, meaning they won't twist arms to keep Democrats in line. That is intended to back up what Pelosi has been saying throughout the impeachment proceedings: The vote will be a "vote of conscience."