“We’re not here to call bluffs. We’re here to find the truth, to uphold the Constitution of the United States,” Pelosi told reporters Tuesday night.
Here’s a closer look at the politics surrounding Democrats’ new decision not to hold a vote on the inquiry, and why they’re probably pretty safe ignoring Trump’s call to do it, for now.
They don’t have to. The past two impeachment inquiries, of Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, started with a full House vote, but there’s nothing in the Constitution or House rules that says that has to be the case. And despite the Trump administration’s intransigence, House investigators have been successful in getting current and former officials to testify. So why take a vote if they don’t have to and the impeachment inquiry is moving forward just fine without one?
One reason to vote is to give the inquiry even more authority to demand information from the Trump administration. But it seems Pelosi has calculated that just publicly saying there’s an impeachment inquiry going on is enough to strengthen Congress’s hand in court, should it come to suing members of the Trump administration over whether they’ll hand over documents or come testify. Plus, if it seems a court case would require a vote formalizing the impeachment inquiry, the House could just mobilize quickly and hold one.
A vote could add more confusion. Instead of clearing up the impeachment process, it could muddle things, at least for vulnerable Democrats. There is a big difference between voting for an impeachment inquiry and voting to impeach Trump. An impeachment inquiry is an investigation of whether Trump has committed “high crimes and misdemeanors.” It’s the first step to impeachment, but it’s not impeachment. A Democratic aide familiar with leadership conversations — speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss high-level internal deliberations among House Democrats — said that Pelosi worries a vote on an impeachment inquiry could cause some voters to think their members of Congress just voted to impeach the president. And the House hasn’t even written up articles of impeachment to vote on.
Pelosi has the votes for an inquiry; nearly all House Democrats support one. But it’s not clear whether moderate members, such as the 31 representing districts Trump won in 2016, would vote to actually impeach the president. Taking two votes — one to start the inquiry and one on impeachment — risks putting those members in a position where they have to explain the nuances between an inquiry and an impeachment at a time when some of their opponents aren’t very nuanced about all of this.
Even though a vote might put swing-state Republicans on the record in a difficult way, Pelosi would rather protect her own.
Republicans’ rationale for demanding for a vote is a thin one anyway. Republicans in the House think they can exert more control over the process once it’s formalized by having a chance to call their own witnesses in hearings. But House Democrats control the majority and, thus, the process, so anything Republicans would want to do would have to get past Democrats first.
It seems likely that Republicans are also demanding the vote to try to delegitimize Democrats’ probe. But Pelosi doesn’t seem too worried they’ll actually succeed in doing that on these grounds: It’s such an insider-y, process argument. Meanwhile, Democrats are out there making the more straightforward case that Trump tried to use a foreign country and potentially taxpayer money to help his reelection. And public opinion on the inquiry is shifting to their favor.
They don’t trust Trump to cooperate after a vote. “If we do vote, Republicans will just come up with another process argument,” the Democratic aide with knowledge of the conversations told The Fix. “So calling their bluff is pointless. Trump will not cooperate no matter what.”
In short, Pelosi just doesn’t feel much, if any, political pressure to hold a vote. It might take away one of Republicans’ arguments. But Democrats don’t feel it was a strong argument to begin with, and right now, pausing a so-far fruitful inquiry to vote wouldn’t help their cause in any tangible way.