Several senior House Democrats announced their support Tuesday for starting an impeachment inquiry against President Trump, putting party leaders on the defensive as they try to balance their hopes for an aggressive legislative agenda against a left wing out for blood.
Even some of the leadership team of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, joined the push to start the path to impeachment, though they were careful to say they will defer to Mrs. Pelosi’s wishes.
Their fury was stoked by Mr. Trump’s directive to former White House counsel Don McGahn to defy a subpoena demanding that he testify Tuesday to the House Judiciary Committee. The White House said Mr. McGahn, as a former close adviser to Mr. Trump, did not have to testify under the separation of powers doctrine that protects a president’s close team from being forced to testify.
Lawmakers said the president’s moves to thwart their investigations have left them with few choices other than to beg the courts to referee.
“I think there’s a growing understanding that the impeachment process is going to be inevitable. It’s just a question of when, not if,” said Rep. John A. Yarmuth, Kentucky Democrat and chairman of the House Budget Committee. “If it happens this summer, that’s fine. If it goes into the fall or next year, I think that’s probably too late.”
Among the new voices for impeachment was Rep. David N. Cicilline, Rhode Island Democrat and chairman of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, and Rep. Mark Pocan, Wisconsin Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
“Regrettably, the president’s most recent actions and continued disrespect for the Constitution are forcing us down the road to impeachment,” Mr. Pocan said in a statement.
Mrs. Pelosi and her top lieutenants, though, say the time is not ripe.
Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, South Carolina Democrat, told MSNBC that a majority of the House Democratic Caucus would prefer not to pursue impeachment right now, and Rep. Hakeem S. Jeffries of New York, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, discounted talk of impeachment as inevitable.
“I disagree with the notion that a growing number of the Democratic caucus wants to jump straight to impeachment,” he said. “What unifies us is a focus on kitchen table issues.”
Mrs. Pelosi is reportedly meeting with lawmakers Wednesday morning to discuss House investigations.
Some freshmen Democrats from competitive districts, such as Reps. Katie Hill of California, Jason Crow of Colorado and Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, are siding with Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. Jeffries, saying they back the ongoing investigations but must take action on their party’s agenda.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a bellwether liberal, said such talk smacked of fear.
“Failure to impeach now is neglect of due process,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez tweeted.
Although the outcome of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is riling many Democrats, the renewed heat behind impeachment comes from Mr. Trump’s moves to claim privilege or immunity to defy subpoenas for his team.
Mr. Trump’s instruction to Mr. McGahn not to appear for testimony this week was the last straw for some.
“Had he shown up, things might have been different,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, Washington Democrat and member of the House Judiciary Committee.
In explaining to House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat, why the White House was directing Mr. McGahn not to comply with the subpoena, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone said everything Mr. McGahn did is protected from disclosure by the president’s privilege to obtain advice from his close advisers without worrying about interrogation by political adversaries in Congress.
“The Department of Justice … has advised me that Mr. McGahn is absolutely immune from compelled congressional testimony with respect to matters occurring during his service as a senior adviser to the president,” Mr. Cipollone wrote to Mr. Nadler on Monday.
Because Mr. McGahn’s work for the White House is exempt, he cannot be held in contempt of Congress for refusing to comply, said the Justice Department’s office of legal counsel.
Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said Democrats are “trying desperately to make something out of nothing.”
Rep. Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican, who over the weekend said Mr. Trump had engaged in “impeachable conduct,” is encouraging other Republicans to join him.
That was quickly shot down by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, who said Mr. Amash was “out of step with America.”
“I don’t think it’s going to be a trendsetting move,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican.
Liberal activists were thrilled to see the growing calls for impeachment.
“The dam is breaking, and the voices of people demanding impeachment are becoming impossible to ignore,” said CREDO Action Co-Director Heidi Hess.
She said Mrs. Pelosi is “running out of excuses, and her ability to delay impeachment proceedings is getting weaker by the day.”
While resisting calls to ramp up pressure on the Trump administration by taking stronger action such as contempt or impeachment inquiries, Mrs. Pelosi has repeatedly deferred to her chairmen, including Mr. Nadler, who would oversee impeachment.
Mr. Nadler has to make sure his entire committee is “comfortable” before making his decision, Ms. Jayapal said.
Some members are looking to push forward with moving whether Mrs. Pelosi is on board or not.
Rep. Al Green, a Texas Democrat who has repeatedly pushed impeachment even before the drastic escalation in tensions between Congress and the White House, said he will force a vote on impeachment if no one else does.
“I think that the president is leaving us very little choice,” said Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, Pennsylvania Democrat and vice chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee. “I think that we have to investigate the president in any event, but I think we’re at the point now where he’s obstructing everything. Yes, we do have to start an inquiry.”
Other Democrats backing the beginning of impeachment said they are not calling for the president’s ouster but rather for an impeachment inquiry, which would gather information to inform them on whether Mr. Trump should face articles of impeachment.
Progressive freshman Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Michigan Democrat, introduced an inquiry resolution this year.
As of Tuesday afternoon, seven members had signed on.
Ms. Jayapal, a supporter of an inquiry, said that rather than signing Ms. Tlaib’s resolution, members of the Judiciary Committee will take action.
Others said they will wait for Mrs. Pelosi’s green light.
“This is a decision that doesn’t get to be made by me. It’s a decision made collectively by our caucus as represented by the speaker. I think the speaker will continue to engage with our caucus,” Mr. Cicilline said. “We elected her as our speaker, and I think she is especially masterful of listening to and incorporating the sentiment of the caucus.”
• Bailey Vogt and Jeff Mordock contributed to this article.
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