WASHINGTON — When the White House announced this week that it would defy the House’s impeachment inquiry, escalating the conflict that dominates the news, Rep. Chrissy Houlahan was in a rural part of Berks County, talking about the spotted lanternfly and its damaging effects on Pennsylvania crops.
That same day, Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Bucks County stood alongside two Democrats to tout a $1 million grant to study the health effects of PFAS chemicals. And at the New Jersey Shore on a Saturday 10 days earlier, Democratic Rep. Andy Kim held a town hall meeting on flood insurance.
Amid the impeachment furor, lawmakers from swing House districts around Philadelphia have spent a two-week recess trying to prove they can still do other work, on issues that affect everyday lives.
They admit it is difficult to break through.
“We try pretty hard in our office to tell those other stories,” said Houlahan, a Chester County Democrat whose recess included a trip to Afghanistan, the Jordan-Syria border and Turkey, meetings at two local businesses, and a sit-down with the local Chamber of Commerce.
But in the face of what could be the third presidential impeachment in U.S. history, she added, “it’s really hard to get the attention of the media to anything other than that.”
Houlahan, Kim, and Fitzpatrick all represent competitive House districts, where the national parties are trying to weaponize the impeachment debate. Republicans paint Democrats as “obsessed” with impeachment and as a “do-nothing” House majority, while Democrats push Republicans to stand up to what they say are President Donald Trump’s obvious excesses.
In a bluer district bordering Houlahan’s, Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, a Delaware County Democrat, is hosting a town hall meeting Monday devoted to answering questions about the effort to investigate and potentially remove Trump.
Scanlon, a member of the Judiciary Committee, which would initiate any formal impeachment articles, said people she has met during recess asked about impeachment “a lot. It’s been pretty consistent.”
Impeachment was also the most common topic raised by people calling Houlahan’s office over the last two weeks, an aide said, a shift from most of her tenure, when issues such as health care and prescription drugs dominated.
Republicans argue that Democrats are now tied to impeachment and all its potential consequences.
“The mere fact that they are focusing, or trying to focus, on lanternflies or flood insurance suggests that they are very concerned about the focus being on continued efforts to try to impeach the president,” said Charlie Gerow, a Republican consultant from Harrisburg.
Trump critics, meanwhile, are pressing Republicans to criticize the president. A group called Republicans for the Rule of Law ran ads on Fox News this week pressing Fitzpatrick to “stand up for the country” and condemn Trump’s calls for foreign investigations into political rival Joe Biden.
Fitzpatrick, the region’s lone House Republican, represents one of five politically tight districts around Philadelphia, four of which are now occupied by Democratic freshmen who swept to victory in 2018 by promising pragmatism.
He recalled a recent Bucks County event where he and Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) discussed opioids.
“As soon as we were done on the press conference, [reporters] all zoomed up to both of us, and guess what they asked about? It wasn’t opioids. It was impeachment, which is a shame,” Fitzpatrick said. “When something like that is taking a back seat to this circus in Washington, I think that’s really unfortunate.”
But as he visited local high schools and technical schools Friday, Fitzpatrick said the topic was a hot one among students, while noting most constituents are sick of gridlock and fighting. (Fitzpatrick said the president’s actions are “very serious” but should be investigated by law enforcement, arguing Democrats are conducting a partisan inquiry.)
Kim, who will likely battle to keep his seat, said he was sticking to basics with his work on flood insurance, a key topic in a district where thousands were affected by Hurricane Sandy.
“Because of that town hall, I was able to get clear direction from my community” about a pending flood insurance bill, Kim said. Only one person asked about impeachment, an aide said, and it was wrapped in a question about eliminating the Federal Reserve. Similarly, at an Oct. 3 town hall meeting held by Rep. Susan Wild, an Allentown Democrat, it took about a dozen questions before impeachment arose.
Kim plans another Saturday appearance, this one near South Jersey’s sprawling joint military base to discuss what he saw on the Middle East trip he took with Houlahan and others.
Rep. Jeff Van Drew (D., N.J.), who represents a South Jersey swing district and does not support impeachment, had no announced public appearances, but posted photos on social media showing him at community events and a ribbon cutting for a public works facility.
National Republicans predict voters will punish Democrats for overreaching.
“I don’t know if Democrats got what they wanted, but they certainly have their hands full now,” said Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtagh.
The national GOP is spending $2 million on television and digital ads aimed at 60 House Democrats. Among them are swing district freshmen such as Kim, Rep. Conor Lamb, who flipped a GOP-held district in Western Pennsylvania, and Rep. Matt Cartwright, whose Scranton-area district has a concentration of Trump voters.
A Democratic group tied to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is countering with $1 million of ads praising 11 vulnerable members for working on prescription drugs and health care, according to the Washington Post. Cartwright is among those receiving the air cover.
In more blue districts, however, other Democrats embrace impeachment.
Rep. Dwight Evans of Philadelphia tweets regular blasts at Trump, citing dishonesty. Scanlon’s Monday town hall, one of two she plans, is on impeachment. She said she, too, would prefer to legislate.
“But we are facing a constitutional crisis with an administration that is violating the Constitution and doing so in a way that is seriously impacting national security,” she said. “We don’t have the choice.”