On a 24-17 party-line vote, the committee approved the resolution, which has a stated purpose of determining “whether to recommend articles of impeachment.”
That may sound like the beginning of an impeachment inquiry, but Democratic leadership has been all over the place in describing the significance of this vote.
Majority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Wednesday he didn’t believe the House was conducting an impeachment inquiry ― and then promptly backtracked that statement later in the day.
“In impeachment, what you imply is the consideration of an impeachment resolution and a vote on the resolution,” Hoyer told reporters. “That’s not currently before the committee.”
But then, Hoyer’s office sent an email trying to clarify his remarks, arguing that the No. 2 Democrat didn’t actually understand the question. “I thought the question was in regards to whether the full House is actively considering articles of impeachment, which we are not at this time,” Hoyer said in a statement that did little to actually clarify what this resolution is.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has also downplayed the resolution, telling reporters Monday that the vote was a “continuation of what we have been doing.” Asked Thursday to clarify whether Democrats have taken a new step toward impeachment, Pelosi demurred. “There’s nothing different from one day to the next,” she said. “We’re still on our same path.”
She added that the investigations, which have been greatly stymied by the administration’s refusal to comply with subpoenas, were moving at a good pace.
“We are, from a timing standpoint, where we need to be,” Pelosi said.
Numerous Democrats have taken positions ranging from an insistence that the House is already in an impeachment inquiry posture to the belief that this vote changes nothing.
“Some call this process an impeachment inquiry. Some call it an impeachment investigation,” Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said before Thursday’s vote. “There is no legal difference between these terms, and I no longer care to argue about the nomenclature.”
House Democrats who favor impeachment said they supported the committee. The Congressional Progressive Caucus, a bloc of nearly 100 progressive Democrats, endorsed the committee’s resolution, despite the procedural confusion.
“I couldn’t clarify that for you for my life,” former CPC co-chair Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said when asked if the committee vote represented an escalation or just a continuation of previous oversight work. “I think I’ll bite my tongue on that one.”
Judiciary member Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a former professor of constitutional law, rejected the idea that Democratic leaders were deliberately creating confusion in order to simultaneously placate members who want to pursue impeachment and members who don’t.
“That’s the one charge I reject out of hand,” Raskin said. “I do not believe that for one second. I think the leadership of our caucus is absolutely committed to countering the lawlessness of the administration. And I think that everyone is serious about trying to determine whether this president has committed and is committing high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Raskin said the confusion results from the Constitution itself, not politics.
“The Constitution doesn’t tell us what leads up to articles of impeachment, and what leads up to the House impeaching the president or the Senate trying the president,” Raskin said.
The Constitution only says the House can impeach the president for treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors, and it’s up to the Senate to then conduct a trial that could remove the president from office. The House has not followed a uniform procedure in the eight instances lawmakers have considered impeaching a president.
Bill Clinton’s case is the most recent example. In October 1998 the Judiciary Committee approved, and then so did the full House, a resolution authorizing the committee “to investigate fully and completely whether sufficient grounds exist for the House of Representatives to exercise its constitutional power to impeach William Jefferson Clinton.” Two months later the committee reported four articles of impeachment, and in a matter of days the House voted to impeach. The following February the Senate found Clinton not guilty.
The biggest difference between then and now is probably that, in 1998, the Judiciary Committee had not claimed that it was conducting an impeachment investigation before it voted, or before the House told it to get going. That’s what Nadler has been doing, as well as claiming Thursday’s vote is a continuation rather than an escalation of the previous efforts.
Republicans repeatedly pointed out during Thursday’s markup that the committee’s inquiry resolution hadn’t been authorized by the full House. “There has been no authority given,” Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) said.
Republicans also mocked the nebulous nature of the resolution. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) called it “impeachment in drag.”
Nadler said “a House vote is not required by the rules of the House or by the Constitution, and the argument ignores ample precedents in which no such votes were taken.”
“There should be no doubt about our purpose,” Nadler continued. “We have been open about our plans in this committee for many months. The record is recounted in the preamble of the resolution before us now. ”
Nadler is not wrong about that, but it’s still unclear to many Democrats what exactly the Judiciary Committee is doing. Leadership seems to want to have it both ways — to say this qualifies as an impeachment inquiry to placate their more progressive members and voters, while assuring more vulnerable Democrats and moderate voters that this isn’t anything new. The confusion is a feature, not a bug.
But for the members who want impeachment, they’re still taking the vote as a key step.
As Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) told HuffPost Wednesday night: “I’d hope we could get over the semantics sometime soon.”
This story has been updated with comments from members of Congress.