WASHINGTON — A sharply divided U.S. House cast its first vote Thursday on the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, approving procedures for public hearings in a step that illustrated how quickly the investigation has moved and how Democrats have united around the effort.
The resolution passed by 232-196, almost entirely along party lines. Two Democrats, including South Jersey’s Jeff Van Drew, voted against the plan. No Republicans supported it.
The resolution did not bring any actual charges, but carries the weight of formally ratifying the ongoing investigation. Symbolic of the gravity of the moment, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) took the unusual step of presiding over the chamber herself as the debate began Thursday morning.
“What is at stake in all of this is nothing less than our democracy,” she later said on the House floor.
“One hundred years from now, historians will look back at this moment and judge us by the decisions we make here today,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D., Mass.). “If we don’t hold this president accountable, we could be ceding our ability to hold any president accountable.”
Trump responded on Twitter: “The Greatest Witch Hunt In American History!”
As clouds shrouded the Capitol, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the House Republican leader, said, “This impeachment is not only an attempt to undo the last election, it is an attempt to influence the next one as well.”
Rep. Steve Scalise (R., La.) described the inquiry as a “Soviet-style” proceeding. He stood alongside a poster showing a hammer and sickle, and Red Square.
The vote came just over a month after the revelation of Trump’s effort to pressure Ukraine to investigate a potential Democratic rival, Joe Biden, and put Democrats on the record regarding one of the most grave actions Congress can undertake.
Van Drew, who represents a moderate South Jersey district that Trump won in 2016, argued that impeachment will only lead to Trump’s exoneration in the Republican-controlled Senate, and will distract lawmakers from tangible accomplishments.
“So I don’t know how much we really gained from that,” he told reporters after vote. “At the same time, we’re going to be so focused on these issues, we’re not going to have the focus on the issues we all care about so much, like health care, like prescription drugs, like infrastructure.”
The widespread Democratic support, however, marked a stark shift from several months ago, when the party was deeply divided about whether to impeach Trump. The Philadelphia region illustrated that change: A handful of Democrats from moderate swing districts had already announced their support for the impeachment probe, despite resisting it earlier.
At the same time, the unified GOP opposition suggests that Democrats will have a difficult time gaining Republican support — in Congress and the country — for impeachment, barring a further shift in public opinion if more evidence emerges. Democrats would need at least 20 Republican senators to break ranks after an impeachment trial to remove the president.
The vote Thursday, Democrats said, will set in motion the “public-facing” portion of their investigation, after weeks of gathering information in closed-door depositions. Republican lawmakers and aides have participated in those depositions, and have been able to ask questions. Public hearings could start in weeks.
“It’s an important moment. I think it was the absolute right step. But it’s an incredibly grave and somber moment that the country has to go through this," said Rep. Madeleine Dean, a Montgomery County Democrat who sits on the Judiciary Committee, which would bring any formal impeachment charges against the president.
Another Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon of Delaware County, called the vote “sad” and “emotional.”
“Everybody, I think, is feeling the weight of the votes,” Scanlon said.
While she has long supported an impeachment investigation, other Democratic holdouts shifted after the Ukraine revelations in late September, despite the potential for political blowback. To them, Trump’s actions raised not just ethical questions but national security concerns. Among them are Reps. Andy Kim of Burlington County, Chrissy Houlahan of Chester County, and Susan Wild of Lehigh County.
Republicans hope to make them pay a price.
“PA Dems vote to end their careers,” read an email blast from Republicans’ congressional campaign arm.
Pelsoi, meanwhile, is scheduled to headline a fundraiser in Montgomery County on Saturday hosted by La Colombe founder Todd Carmichael, benefiting potentially vulnerable Pennsylvania incumbents Wild, Matt Cartwright, and Conor Lamb.
In addition to rules for public impeachment hearings, the resolution deals with disclosure of testimony taken in private, and powers for Republicans and the White House to issue subpoenas, cross-examine witnesses, and present their own evidence. The rules largely match those laid out during the GOP impeachment of Democratic President Bill Clinton, though Republicans said they fall short of the protections Clinton received.
The only Republican House member in the Philadelphia area, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Bucks County, joined his party in voting “nay.” Fitzpatrick, a former FBI agent, has derided the Democratic investigation as a “three-ring circus” that should be done in public. He also argued that law enforcement officials should handle the fact-finding in a nonpartisan atmosphere, and turn the information over to Congress to evaluate.
Other Republicans argued that no set of rules laid out now can make the process fair.
“You cannot make the game fair by allowing the opposing team onto the field at the two-minute warning,” said Rep. Michael McCaul (R., Texas).
Democrats point out that unlike during Clinton’s impeachment, there is no special counsel to gather the facts. That’s why they say they have had to do it this way, and that they have taken depositions privately to prevent witnesses from coordinating statements and keep the process from turning into political grandstanding — comparing it to a grand jury investigation before formal charges are made public. Republicans, they note, used private testimony in the initial stages of some of their investigations into the Obama administration.