The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

More than half of House Democrats support an impeachment inquiry. So, why isn’t there one yet?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) speaks to reporters in July. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

A majority of House Democrats now support starting an impeachment inquiry into President Trump. The announcement by Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Calif.) on Friday put them across that threshold, according to The Washington Post’s count.

That is symbolically significant, especially as the election campaign to unseat Trump is well underway and as party leaders issue grave warnings that impeachment could cost them the House majority next year.

But having 118 out of 235 House Democrats supportive of the first step toward impeachment doesn’t mean that step will actually be taken. It’s possible that nothing will happen as a result of this milestone.

That’s largely because House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has been resolute that starting down the impeachment path would be the wrong move for Democrats if they want to keep their majority. Pelosi is the one person in Congress who has the authority to stop the impeachment train before it gets rolling because, well, she’s the boss. And she’s well aware that a lot of her caucus still doesn’t support impeachment.

A majority of House Democrats back impeachment, according to an analysis by The Washington Post

There are other reasons not to be bullish on impeachment happening. Having 118 Democrats say they support an impeachment inquiry is not the same as voting to impeach the president.

Launching an inquiry is really just dipping a toe into the water. The House Judiciary Committee would launch an investigation to determine what, if anything, Trump has done that rises to Congress’s self-determined bar of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” If they find something that meets that bar, they would draw up articles of impeachment for the entire House to vote on. It’s possible that what they draw up wouldn’t win over a majority of Democrats. (Though in this hyperpartisan era, we recognize that that’s a big maybe.)

Democrats had a chance to actually vote to move forward on impeachment last month; Rep. Al Green (D-Tex.) forced a resolution onto the House floor after Trump tweeted that four minority House Democrats should “go back” to countries they came from. A majority of House Democrats didn’t even vote to proceed to debate the resolution.

Still, there’s no denying that Democrats are steadily coalescing around the idea that they need to at least consider impeaching Trump. Since special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report was released in April, every big moment related to the Russia investigation has brought a wave of lawmakers over to supporting an impeachment inquiry.

A big driver seems to be Mueller himself. More than 75 House Democrats have called for an impeachment inquiry since Mueller first spoke publicly about his investigation in late May. And 24 have called for one since Mueller’s testimony to two House committees last week. Now more than half of the House Democratic committee chairs support an impeachment inquiry.

But this new impeachment caucus is made up of a vast majority of liberals. It’s not as liberal a group as it used to be, as The Post’s Philip Bump illustrates here. But there are only seven Democrats from Republican-leaning districts on this list. Only one Democrat supporting an impeachment inquiry represents a district Trump won in 2016, Rep. Chris Pappas of New Hampshire. (There are 30 other House Democrats in such districts.)

Pelosi is fully aware that impeachment is not popular among a majority of Americans. A Quinnipiac poll taken in the days after Mueller’s testimony found no significant movement toward impeachment. It’s still opposed by 6 in 10 Americans.

Nor is there any sign impeachment is a top priority for voters in Republican-leaning districts in states such as Kansas, Iowa and Georgia — places Democrats ventured into in the 2018 midterm elections to kick out Republicans and win the majority.

“I believe impeachment will assuredly consume us all,” Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), who knocked off a Republican in a suburban swing district in 2016, told constituents at a recent town hall. The Orlando Sentinel’s Steve Lemongello reported that just one audience member asked about impeachment. “Instead,” he reported, “most of those at the town hall aimed at seniors asked about shoring up Medicare, protecting Social Security and other health care and fiscal issues.”

One potential area of compromise between Pelosi and half her caucus: She can argue the investigations of Trump that are already going on are akin to investigating impeachment without actually using the politically polarizing “i” word. A lawsuit filed by the House Judiciary Committee to get the full Mueller report actually says they need the information for an impeachment investigation, leading some legal scholars to conclude an impeachment inquiry has already started under the radar.

Some members of Congress are trying to get that word out. “In every meaningful way, our investigation is an impeachment inquiry,” Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, wrote in an op-ed published Thursday by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Even if it goes no further than this symbolic majority-support milestone, this moment will be a bullet point in the history of Trump’s presidency. But there’s a real chance it doesn’t go further than this.

JM Rieger contributed to this report.