Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.) wagered this week that the House could impeach President Obama if it wanted to, becoming the latest in a long line of congressional Republicans to float the "i" word. (His spokesman later clarified that Barletta isn't advocating such a thing, but that he truly believes the House would approve it.)
Is he right?
In short: Probably not.
The House is comprised of 233 Republicans and 199 Democrats, with a simple majority — 217 votes — required to impeach. Before the articles of impeachment go to the full House, though, they would have to pass through the House Judiciary Committee, where Republicans hold a 23 to 18 advantage. Again, a simple majority is required.
(And even if the House did vote to impeach Obama — which it has the sole authority to do — there's just no way two-thirds of the Democratic-controlled Senate would follow through and actually remove him from office. But we digress for the question at hand: impeachment.)
Assuming all House Democrats would vote against impeachment — a pretty safe assumption, we would think — no more than two Republicans could vote against it in committee, and no more than 16 could vote against it in the full House.
The most likely opponents of impeachment would be establishment Republicans and GOP leaders who would worry (with good reason) that impeaching the president would be a highly risky political maneuver, as it proved in the late 1990s with Bill Clinton.
Let's take the process step-by-step:
In committee: The Judiciary Committee does have lots of conservatives and tea partiers — particularly from the South — who might be more apt to vote for impeachment, and committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) during last year's gun control debate left open the idea of impeachment if Obama over-stepped his bounds on executive actions. But the committee also has more establishment-friendly members, and just three of them are required to nip impeachment in the bud before it ever gets to the House floor.
Full House: In the full House, GOP leaders and impeachment opponents would need to put together an even smaller percentage of their votes to stop impeachment. While 13 percent of the Judiciary Committee Republicans would be needed to stop it there, just 7 percent of Republicans overall would need to vote "no" in the full House. That's only one out of every 13 members.
You can pretty much bet that House GOP leaders would be working against such an effort. About the only situation in which they would be on board is if the political pressure from the conservative base was just too much for them to resist.
Does that pressure exist? Well, there's not any reliable polling data out there on impeachment, but we would doubt that there is nearly as much support for impeachment today as there was in 1998. Back then, there was a singular event that caused the House to act — a president lying about an affair in the White House — while the case for impeaching Obama is much more broad and diffuse.
We don't doubt that there are impeachment supporters out there, but polling suggests that the American people set a pretty high bar for impeachable offenses. Even in the case of Clinton, polls at the time showed that the American people were pretty clearly against impeachment. A CBS News/New York Times poll on the eve of the vote showed 64 percent wanted their member to oppose impeachment, while 30 percent were in favor.
Despite this, the House voted to impeach him on two counts — perjury and and obstruction of justice — while declining to do so on other counts. And there were even Republicans who voted against their party; five voted against impeaching him for perjury, while 12 voted against impeaching him for obstruction of justice.
If 30 percent of the country currently favored impeachment, there would indeed be pressure on House Republicans, who would be concerned about facing primary challenges if they voted against articles of impeachment. Such is the nature of the GOP today, and that shouldn't be discounted.
But it seems pretty unlikely that GOP leaders, wary of another Clinton-esque fiasco, couldn't pick off 7 percent of their caucus.
And indeed, we would think that at least 7 percent of House Republicans would be more concerned about a pro-impeachment vote hurting them in the general election than an anti-impeachment vote hurting them in their primaries.