Democrats’ first official step toward impeachment got off on a deeply partisan foot Thursday, leaving House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her team already lagging behind the 1998 move to impeach President Bill Clinton.
The 232-196 vote to launch an impeachment inquiry of President Trump was almost exactly split along party lines. Every Republican and just two Democrats voted “no.” That is a stark break with the Clinton case, the last time Congress worked to impeach the president, when 31 Democrats sided with all Republicans in a 257-176 vote to begin proceedings.
The lack of bipartisan support this time could taint the inquiry and hinder Democratic hopes of ousting Mr. Trump in an eventual Senate trial.
“The vote today, like the entire impeachment effort, is more about Speaker Pelosi remaining speaker than it is about removing the president from office,” one White House official told The Washington Times. “That’s clear to everyone, which is why no Republicans chose to cross the aisle.”
Republicans were unified partly because they think the process Mrs. Pelosi is leading is unfair.
The resolution approved Thursday grants the lead role to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, relegating the Judiciary Committee — which usually heads these sorts of proceedings — to a secondary spot.
Republicans said the resolution also denies the minority party the kinds of access to documents and subpoena powers granted to Democrats, who were in the minority in 1998.
“Today’s resolution shows a Democratic House failing to give these same protections to a Republican president,” said Rep. Tom Cole, Oklahoma Republican. “Without those protections, this will be seen as just another partisan exercise.”
But Rules Committee Chairman James P. McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat, insisted that Republicans were being treated fairly — and in fact better than Mr. Clinton or President Nixon, who faced impeachment in 1974.
Mr. McGovern said the inquiry officially launched Thursday, after a month of secret proceedings, will eventually allow for open hearings and does give the minority subpoena power, as long as at least some members of the Democratic majority concur.
“I don’t think there is any process that we can propose that Republicans, who prefer to circle the wagons around this president and prevent us from getting to the truth, can accept,” Mr. McGovern said.
Mr. McGovern chided Republicans for focusing on the impeachment process and said they should instead be questioning Mr. Trump’s behavior.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, said the lack of bipartisan support “betrays” Mrs. Pelosi’s promise at the beginning of this Congress that she would not pursue impeachment unless there was overwhelming bipartisan consensus.
“What has changed since those words have been spoken?” Mr. McCarthy wondered.
One of the Democrats to vote against the inquiry was Rep. Collin C. Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat who was in Congress in 1998 and was one of the 31 Democrats who voted for the inquiry into Mr. Clinton.
On Thursday, Mr. Peterson called Mrs. Pelosi’s effort “hopelessly partisan” — for many of the reasons Republicans gave.
“I have some serious concerns with the way the closed-door depositions were run and am skeptical that we will have a process that is open, transparent and fair,” he said. He added that he is undecided on whether he would support impeachment should it come to a vote.
More than 40 other Democrats who excused Mr. Clinton’s behavior in 1998 voted to investigate Mr. Trump. Meanwhile, 14 Republicans who supported the Clinton inquiry voted against the Trump investigation.
Mr. Clinton went on to be impeached by the House on charges of perjury, on a 228-206 vote, and obstruction of justice, on a 221-212 vote.
A trial was held in the Senate, where it takes a two-thirds vote to convict and remove the president from office. Mr. Clinton was acquitted when just 50 senators voted to convict for obstruction and 45 for perjury.
A Gallup poll taken the week after the House approved the impeachment inquiry in 1998 showed 55% of likely voters disapproved of impeachment. By contrast, a plurality of 48% support impeachment now, according to the FiveThirtyEight.com average of polling.
The impeachment effort aimed at Nixon was even more bipartisan than Mr. Clinton‘s. The House approved that inquiry by a 410-4 vote.
During the February 1974 floor debate that laid out subpoena powers, not a single member rose to defend Nixon. Instead, both Democrats and Republicans intoned on the seriousness with which they pursued the case.
Rep. John J. Rhodes, the House Republican leader at the time, took to the floor to say he trusted Democrats’ promises to conduct the inquiry fairly.
Democrats said they had to deviate from that bipartisan and open process because this inquiry is different.
In 1974, and again in 1998, they said special prosecutors already had completed investigations. Now, the Justice Department has cleared Mr. Trump of wrongdoing, so House Democrats say they are conducting their own investigation.
“That work has necessarily occurred behind closed doors because we have had the task of finding the facts ourselves,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the chairman of the intelligence committee who has become the Democrats’ chief impeachment prosecutor.
Democrats said their resolution will eventually have Mr. Schiff make public the secret evidence he has amassed against Mr. Trump.
They also promised eventual public hearings.
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