Predictions about some defections come as a core group of centrists from districts Trump won in 2016 are having second thoughts. While many knew impeachment would never be popular in their GOP-leaning districts, some have been surprised that support hasn’t increased despite negative testimony about Trump from a series of blockbuster hearings last month.
Several moderates have privately pined for other options, including a censure vote they know they’re unlikely to get. Others have even considered what one moderate called “splitting the baby”: backing one article of impeachment but not the other to try to show independence from the party.
The House Judiciary Committee is poised to vote Thursday on one article charging Trump with abuse of power for pressuring Ukraine to help his reelection chances in 2020 and another on obstruction of Congress for blocking testimony from witnesses and ignoring requests for documents in the impeachment inquiry.
The full House would vote next week.
“I’m still thinking it over,” said Rep. Susie Lee, a centrist who hails from a GOP-leaning Nevada district Trump carried in 2016. “This is a very grave decision. . . . I’m hearing all sides of it. . . . It’s mixed, it’s very mixed.”
“As soon as they’re formally adopted, I’ll make a decision,” said Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), another centrist Democrat who attended a session Monday night in which moderates discussed their concerns. “I’ve said all along, I need to see all the facts. I’m not going to prejudge anything until we get every bit of information.”
To be sure, Democratic leaders have the votes to impeach Trump, said senior Democrats speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. With 233 Democrats, 197 Republicans and one independent — Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.) — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) can afford to lose 17 Democrats and still prevail.
Amash is expected to vote to impeach Trump, while Republicans are likely to unite in opposition.
In fact, Democratic leaders have said they don’t intend to whip the impeachment vote, allowing each member to make his or her own personal choice on such a historic roll call that many see as a legacy-defining issue.
“This is one of those issues where members have to come to their own conclusions; it’s just too consequential,” said Rep. Daniel Kildee (D-Mich.), a deputy whip. “I think this is one of those votes where people are going to be remembered for a long time for how they voted on it.”
Still, the more votes Pelosi loses, the more Republicans will push a narrative of Democrats divided. Indeed, Republicans, who are increasingly confident they won’t lose any members, say they’re planning to highlight any increase in the number of Democratic defections as evidence of a weak case for removing Trump.
That might hurt Democrats in the short term, but in the long run it could pay dividends, boosting moderates in battleground districts ahead of their 2020 reelections. Additionally, it wouldn’t be unprecedented: Republicans broke ranks and voted against each of the four charges against President Bill Clinton; 81 and 28 GOP lawmakers voted down two of the charges, handily sinking both.
The quiet hand-wringing comes despite Pelosi’s catering to moderates throughout the impeachment process. When the inquiry began, centrists implored the speaker to keep proceedings dignified, solely focused on Ukraine and national security — and to sideline the House Judiciary panel known for its more liberal impeachment proponents. She did that.
More recently, Pelosi kept the articles of impeachment narrowly focused on Ukraine, even as her own top lieutenants — House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) — as well as most of the House Judiciary Committee, pressed to include charges of obstruction of justice based on evidence in the Mueller report.
That decision has eased concerns for some moderates, many of whom told leadership they would oppose an article on obstruction of justice. One of those advocating a Ukraine focus was Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.), who flipped a GOP-held Pennsylvania district and has been getting an earful from both sides on impeachment. She plans to vote for both articles.
“I know from my own inbox that there’s plenty of antagonism out there, but on the other hand I’ve also gotten enormous numbers of people texting me, emailing me, private messaging me with supportive messages,” Wild said. “I don’t really know how it plays back home at this point, so ultimately, for me, it comes down to doing the right thing, and I think this is the right thing to do.”
Pelosi has also tried to give moderates political cover with a series of legislative victories they can tout back home. Among them are a major trade deal and passage of a sweeping defense bill with paid leave for federal workers, as well as votes on key campaign promises to lower the cost of prescription drugs and bolster voting rights.
Some moderates are getting even more. Rep. Anthony Brindisi, a Democratic centrist who is agonizing about how to vote, secured a major win in the defense bill that the House passed Wednesday — a provision designed to boost a local manufacturing plant in his district that Trump carried by more than 15 points.
Brindisi’s ousted predecessor, Claudia Tenney, had implored GOP leadership to adopt the provision, which requires the military to buy American-made eating utensils. The only U.S. manufacturer that produces those utensils, Sherrill Manufacturing, is headquartered in the Upstate New York district.
GOP leaders ignored Tenney but Pelosi didn’t.
“STICK A FORK IN IT!” Brindisi tweeted, touting the win. “Pleased to finally secure this win for American manufacturing in Upstate New York.”
Senior Democrats expect the two lawmakers who opposed impeachment inquiry rules in September — Rep. Jeff Van Drew (D-N.J.) and Collin C. Peterson (D-Minn.) — to oppose articles of impeachment. While Van Drew confirmed he would be a no, Peterson told reporters he was leaning toward opposing the charges but had not made up his mind.
Senior Democrats are also closely watching members from the most competitive districts, including Reps. Kendra Horn of Oklahoma, Joe Cunningham of South Carolina, and Ben McAdams of Utah. Democrats expect that the half-dozen Democrats with national security backgrounds who endorsed the inquiry so strongly in a September op-ed in The Washington Post will vote to impeach Trump, even though some of their districts are among the most competitive.
Some of those worried Democrats huddled Monday night to discuss the possibility of asking leadership to censure instead of impeach Trump. Others have also talked about voting for an abuse of power article while opposing the obstruction of Congress article.
Impeachment concerns from moderates reflect the public polling, with some recent surveys starting to show slightly greater opposition. Forty-five percent of Americans said Trump should be impeached and removed from office, while 50 percent disagreed, in a Monmouth University poll released Wednesday. A Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday had similar findings.
Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), one of the half-dozen national security centrists who endorsed impeachment in The Post op-ed, said “phones are ringing off the hook” in her office and “literally my team cannot pick up the phone fast enough because it’s constantly ringing.”
Slotkin, who represents a Trump district, said she has not decided how she will vote. While her district is “overall not supportive of impeachment,” she said some votes require members to go with their gut over constituents’ wishes.
“I think that there are some decisions that leaders are asked to make that are often controversial and difficult and hard to understand for lots of people, but the leader has to make it because they know it’s the right thing to do,” said the former CIA officer. “And I am very comfortable in doing that because my world is national security.”
Moderates who vote against impeachment could also face blowback from the party’s left flank, particularly in fundraising. Van Drew has been facing a liberal insurgency in his South Jersey swing district since voting against formalizing the impeachment inquiry in October.
Van Drew denied rumors Wednesday that his is considering changing his party affiliation after liberals and some party leaders have suggested they might seek to unseat him in a primary: “I’m not changing anything,” he said. “I’m just doing my job.”
Not all moderates are skittish. Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), one of the earliest battleground-district Democrats to back impeachment, indicated he’s pleased with the investigation.
“There’s a high degree of confidence in the process,” Crow said, saying it was “handled well — professionally, thoroughly — by both the Intelligence Committee and the Judiciary Committee.”