U.S. House Democrats on Thursday took a major step forward on their fast-moving impeachment probe, voting to set ground rules for the inquiry as congressional investigators prepare to go public with the case against President Donald Trump.
The resolution — passed on a 232-196 vote almost entirely along party lines — is also intended to neutralize a frequent GOP attack line that Democrats hadn’t formalized the probe.
The White House and top Republicans have denounced the inquiry as unfair to Trump and a fishing expedition, but Democrats have shrugged off the GOP complaints and are moving forward with their efforts to remove the president from office.
“Today, we are further down the path of our inquiry,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters Thursday.
“It’s a sad day,” Pelosi added, in one of her favorite refrains of late. “Nobody comes to Congress to impeach the president.”
Democratic leaders lost just two of their members on the vote, which marks the first time the full House has voted on any aspect of the impeachment inquiry.
The defections came from Rep. Jeff Van Drew (D-N.J.), a freshman and vocal impeachment critic, and Rep. Colin Peterson (D-Minn.), whose district went for Trump by 30 points in 2016.
Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, an independent who left the Republican Party and has fiercely criticized Trump, voted for the resolution.
Every Republican voted against the resolution formalizing the inquiry.
Pelosi and her deputies had initially resisted holding such a vote. And this week, they repeatedly stressed that the measure was in no way a vote on impeachment, but simply a move to establish a process for public hearings moving forward.
But Pelosi and other top Democrats also spent time acknowledging the somber circumstances as the party moves closer to a move that only two Congresses in history have made before.
At a caucus meeting this week, Pelosi referenced writings by founding fathers like Alexander Hamilton, and asked Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) to lead the caucus in a prayer, where he asked for guidance, strength and courage, according to multiple lawmakers.
Pelosi underscored the weight of the moment with a rare floor speech ahead of the vote, where she began by reading from the preamble of the Constitution and detailing the oath of office taken by each member of Congress.
“This is something that is very solemn and is very prayerful. We had to gather so much information to take us to this next step,” Pelosi said. “This is a solemn occasion.”
House Republicans — who had previously demanded Democrats take this exact step to formalize their process — have been furious at the details of the resolution. They claimed it limited minority party rights and attacked the Democrats for “secret interviews” and “selective leaks” designed to damage Trump.
“Democrats are continuing their permanent campaign to undermine [Trump’s] legitimacy,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) asserted on the House floor. “Democrats are trying to impeach the president, because they are scared they cannot defeat him at the ballot box.”
The resolution does spell out certain due process rights provided to Trump once the probe moves into the public domain, but Republicans note they are constrained by Democratic chairmen.
For instance, Republicans may request to call witnesses and issue subpoenas at Intelligence Committee hearings, but the requests can be vetoed by Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) — a similar arrangement to previous impeachment proceedings.
Trump and his legal team will also be able to mount a defense and cross-examine witnesses in the House Judiciary Committee, which will draft any articles of impeachment. But those actions will also need to be approved by Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.).
“The House Intelligence Committee has ceased to exist,” Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said. “We now have a full-fledged impeachment committee in the basement of the Capitol.”
Democrats’ seemingly abrupt decision to announce and vote on the resolution this week had initially rankled some members of the caucus, particularly those in Trump strongholds who have worked to avoid any mention of impeachment.
A number of vulnerable Democrats complained that their caucus had rolled out the resolution without adequately explaining the rationale, though they ultimately backed it on the floor.
For several Democrats, it was the first time they publicly endorsed the impeachment inquiry. That includes Reps. Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.), Kendra Horn (D-Okla.), Jared Golden (D-Maine) and Joe Cunningham (D-S.C.).
“I think the vote will allow a fair and open process and will finally let Americans judge for themselves,” Brindisi told the Syracuse Post-Standard ahead of the vote.