Congress

Impeachment watch: These are the Democrats to keep an eye on

Impeachment of President Donald Trump will largely be determined by two powerful, unpredictable forces: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the House Democrats who face tough re-election races.

At the moment, Pelosi and those Democrats urge caution on moving down that path.

“I mean, there are millions of people who voted for this president in 2016 and put him into office. And your vote matters,” Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-South Carolina, told a Summerville town hall audience last weekend, “and to simply nullify that vote by starting down this road of impeachment, I think it requires thoughtful consideration.”

Trump won his Charleston-area district by 13 percentage points in 2016.

Republicans need a net gain of 18 seats in 2020 to regain control of the House that they lost last year, when 31 Democrats won in districts Trump carried in 2016. A handful of other Democrats eked out wins last year over GOP incumbents, adding to Pelosi’s political tightrope.

Since Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report was released in April, and he made a statement about it May 29, the clamor from many House Democrats has grown to begin a formal impeachment proceeding. Mueller made no decision on whether Trump obstructed justice, saying that charging the president with a crime was “not an option.”

The impeachment process would likely begin in the House Judiciary Committee. Should articles of impeachment be approved there, the full House would vote. If Trump is impeached, a trial would be held in the Senate, and removal from office would require 67 of that chamber’s 100 members.

Whether any of that happens will depend on those two Democratic forces. The outlook:

—HOUSE LEADERS and SENIOR DEMOCRATS—

NANCY PELOSI, House Speaker

Fifty-five of the 235 House Democrats have publicly urged starting impeachment proceedings, according to data compiled by TheHill.com, but privately, many more have told leaders they want to begin the process.

Pelosi has so far refused to utter the i-word as a serious consideration. The California Democrat’s view is that election wins will come by focusing on improving health care, immigration policy, gun control and other day-to-day constituent concerns.

She also knows political reality: removing Trump from office would need 67 Senate votes, which appears unlikely since Republicans have a majority of 53 seats. A Senate trial also could very well energize the Trump base.

Pressure even among senior House Democrats is growing as evident after a tense meeting with the speaker Tuesday. But while Pelosi keeps talking tough, she proceeds gingerly. “Make no mistake we know exactly what path we’re on,” she told reporters Wednesday. “We know exactly what actions we need to take. While that may take more time than some people want it to take I respect their impatience.”

JIM CLYBURN, House majority whip

The South Carolina Democrat has been saying for months that Congress should investigate allegations of misconduct within the Trump administration.

He has compared Trump’s situation to that of former President Richard Nixon, predicting that like that embattled president the current commander-in-chief could ultimately feel pressured to step aside rather than endure formal impeachment proceedings.

Jake Tapper, host of CNN’s “State of the Union,” asked Clyburn if “you think that the president will be impeached, or at least proceedings will begin in the House at some point, but just not right now?”

“Yes, exactly what I feel,” Clyburn replied. But he then largely echoed Pelosi, explaining Congress is methodically doing its work.

Media accounts suggested Clyburn was backing impeachment proceedings. He met with Pelosi and other House leaders on Monday and later told reporters, “I’m probably farther away from impeachment than anybody in our caucus.”

He reiterated the Pelosi view. “We will not get out in front of our committees. We’ll see what the committees come up with. I’ve said that forever,” Clyburn said.

JERROLD NADLER, House Judiciary Committee chairman

The New York City Democrat leads the committee of 24 Democrats and 17 Republicans that would handle impeachment. While it has not taken that step, Nadler has aggressively pushed to investigate Trump and plans to keep up the pressure.

The committee will hold a hearing Monday on “the alleged crimes and other misconduct laid out in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report.” The key witness will be John Dean, Nixon’s White House counsel who was widely credited with bringing public attention to that administration’s Watergate-related scandals in 1973.

On Tuesday, the House is scheduled to vote on whether to hold Attorney General William Barr and former White House Counsel Donald McGahn in contempt of Congress for refusing to honor subpoenas seeking material related to Mueller’s findings.

If the vote succeeds, as expected, the committee would be able to seek help from a federal court to enforce the subpoenas.

HAKEEM JEFFRIES, House Democratic Caucus Chairman

Jeffries is regarded as the party’s leading House up-and-comer. At age 48, the New York Democrat is roughly 30 years or more younger than the top three House Democratic leaders.

He is a Judiciary Committee member who is careful to stick to the leadership line. House Democrats usually meet privately once a week, and after Tuesday’s meeting he stressed that there was “no discussion” of impeachment.

“It’s my sense members united around the principle that we have to get things done for the American people,” Jeffries said, describing party efforts to revamp laws affecting health care, prescription drug costs and immigration.

But, he added, “We need to serve as a check and balance on an out of control and increasingly lawless administration.” He wouldn’t go any further.

EMANUEL CLEAVER, senior Congressional Black Caucus member

Cleaver has repeatedly said he’ll make his decision about whether to support impeachment after Mueller testifies before Congress — a line he has continued to use even after Mueller said his testimony would not go beyond the content of his 448-page report.

Cleaver, 74, is a mentor to younger members, respected for his political acumen. The eight-term Democrat’s district stretches from the urban core of Kansas City, where Trump is unpopular, to rural farm towns with a strong base of GOP-leaning voters.

“I am not opposed to impeachment. I am opposed to impatience,” Cleaver told McClatchy. He wants to approach the issue slowly and thoughtfully before he agrees to back impeachment proceedings.

“Nancy Pelosi has never been challenged at any of our Democratic caucus meetings talking about being deliberate. Not today. Not yesterday. Not the week before. I mean, I know there is a belief that there’s warring factions inside the caucus over impeachment, but there isn’t.”

—VULNERABLE DEMOCRATS—

JOE CUNNINGHAM of South Carolina

People in the audience at Saturday’s town hall meeting at Summerville High School wanted to know why Cunningham was not joining calls to impeach the president.

Democrats should not rush to jump to conclusions based on tweets and popular opinion without first letting House committees complete their investigations, said the freshman Democrat. Trump won Cunningham’s district by 13 percentage points.

“For the people who voted for President Trump, to feel like that vote was ripped away from them, without a sound and just basis and without a clear argument and without a clear understanding of all the facts, I think runs contrary to what we’re trying to do,” he said.

Audience members persisted, asking about Trump’s vows to fight every congressional subpoena issued by House committees investigating his presidency and personal affairs.

JOSH HARDER and TJ COX of California

The two freshmen Democrats both narrowly beat Republican incumbents in the purple districts of the San Joaquin Valley in California.

Impeachment is not a popular idea. After Mueller’s statement last week, Harder and Cox mirrored Pelosi’s statements, saying they thought investigations into the president were important.

Cox called the Mueller report “the beginning of a discussion on how to protect our democracy, not the end.”

Neither congressman wanted to discuss impeachment proceedings, not in districts where water policy, health care and maintaining and creating jobs are major discussion points.

“The Mueller report made it clear there are serious ethical violations and still many unanswered questions,” Harder said. “We have to get to the bottom of what happened and we need more transparency and accountability from Washington, especially from the White House.”

LUCY McBATH of Georgia

Seen as one of the more vulnerable House Democrats, McBath beat incumbent Karen Handel for a seat once held by Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Trump narrowly won the district in 2016, and McBath, who won her seat last year with 50.5 percent, has emphasized working with Republicans to get things done.

“More people are concerned about the kitchen table. They’re more concerned about … pricing for their drugs, their treatment, portable health care. That’s what they’re talking about,” she told McClatchy.

Asked about the Mueller report, McBath, a judiciary committee member, said, “This Congress will take care of this. We’ll continue to do our investigation, but we’ve got to stay focused on what’s important to people every single day.”

Tom Barton of The State contributed from South Carolina, S.C. Bryan Lowry, Emma Dumain and Kate Irby of McClatchy’s Washington bureau contributed from Washington.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Rep. Harder’s margin of victory.
David Lightman is McClatchy’s chief congressional correspondent. He’s been writing, editing and teaching for 47 years, with stops in Hagerstown, Riverside, Calif., Annapolis, Baltimore and since 1981, Washington.