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(Bloomberg) -- House Democrats hold a historic vote on Thursday to kick off the public phase of an inquiry of President Donald Trump that moves significantly closer to a vote to impeach him.
The vote, which is expected to break down mostly along party lines, doesn’t make his conviction and removal from office by the Senate any more likely. But the rare step to consider removing a president from office makes a process that has been bitter and partisan even more intense and fraught for all sides.
After weeks of testimony, Democrats and Republicans head into the Capitol firmly battened down for a fight over their views of the president: That his actions in office at least merit an investigation or that he’s done nothing wrong.House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who had been dismissing Republican demands that the full House vote to authorize an impeachment inquiry as unnecessary, shifted course and announced that the chamber would consider a resolution that sets the parameters and process for an investigation.
The vote, which House leaders expect to take place between 10:30 and 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, is a step well short of authorizing Trump’s impeachment, but no one on either side doubts that’s where things will end up.The resolution in support of the inquiry will be the first chance for all House members to be on record supporting or rejecting the impeachment process. It is headed for a mostly straight party-line vote, with the Democratic majority prevailing.“I wouldn’t be surprised if not a single Republican votes for it,” said Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the second-ranking House Republican.The vote won’t mean an immediate end to the close-door hearings that have been bitterly criticized by Trump and Republican lawmakers. But the resolution will set up public hearings by the Intelligence Committee, led by California Democrat Adam Schiff, who has become the face of the Democrats’ impeachment effort.
The hearings are where Democrats intend to lay out for voters a case that they say shows Trump abused his powers by trying to pressure the government of Ukraine to deliver a political favor by digging up dirt on a political rival.
QuickTake: What to Know About Trump, Ukraine and Impeachment
The president has derided the “impeachment hoax” that he says is propelled by Democratic attempts to destroy the Republican Party. He’s said he did nothing improper in his interactions with Ukraine’s president. Although the Republican majority in the Senate isn’t likely to vote to remove Trump from office, the investigation comes as the president prepares to seek re-election next year with approval ratings hovering in the low 40s.
Only two American presidents have been impeached and neither was convicted by the Senate and removed from office. A third, Richard Nixon, resigned before a vote could be held.
As with the most recent case, involving Democrat Bill Clinton in 1998, the investigation of Trump is cast as being driven either by constitutional concerns or partisan intentions -- even if some Republicans are themselves uncomfortable with some of the underlying facts.
The House resolution provides no timeline for the public hearings and sets no expectations of which witnesses might be called. But members of the Intelligence, Oversight and Foreign Affairs committees now running the inquiry say they’ve been told the public phase could begin in three weeks.
By planning to hold public hearings, Pelosi and her fellow Democrats are challenging the White House rationale for attempting to block witnesses from testifying and refusing to turn over documents. Trump and Republicans have contended the closed hearings and the inability of the president’s team to call their own witnesses have tainted the entire affair.
“You’re watching how a sham works in Congress, not how a real investigation works,” Republican Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, a Trump confidante said Wednesday.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries of New York said the aim of Democratic resolution was to establish an investigative process focused on determining – among other things -- whether the president abused his power in pressuring the government of Ukraine for personal political reasons.
Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Rules Committee, said at a Wednesday hearing on the resolution that the processes spelled out weren’t fair to the president and were geared to “a preordained result.”
The material gathered during the investigation phase would be turned over to the Judiciary Committee, where Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York would hold additional hearings at which Trump or his lawyers would be allowed to participate. Judiciary is where any articles of impeachment would be drawn up.Many Democrats say they expect the process to be wrapped up by December, sending the impeachment to the Senate, where Republicans have a majority, for trial.Cole and other Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, argue the procedures outlined in the resolution don’t afford the president a voice in the proceedings until the end.
Because impeachment is a such serious step that could remove a president from office, “any such inquiry must be conducted by the highest standards of fairness and due process,” McConnell said. “But thus far this time around instead of setting a high bar, House Democrats seem determined to set a new low.”Even Republicans who are retiring -- and have nothing to lose by breaking with the president -- say they’ll vote against the resolution. Oregon Representative Greg Walden, who said recently that he won’t seek re-election, said he doesn’t see how Democrats can restore the credibility of the probe.
“I don’t think it was the president’s finest hour in that phone call, but their process is horribly flawed,” Walden said. “Once you rip the feather pillow open and the feathers have flown to the seven winds, it’s hard to get the pillow back together.”
Democrats contend there is already sufficient evidence for impeachment. That includes a rough transcript of Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in which he brings up a possible investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden -- revelations that first surfaced in a still-unnamed whistle-blower’s complaint.
A line of witnesses in closed-door testimony have added to the record that U.S. military assistance was withheld at the same time administration officials were seeking a Ukraine commitment on an investigation.
“While I disagreed with the initial decision to open the impeachment inquiry, it is clear that the investigation has confirmed information contained in the whistle-blower complaint,” Maine Democratic Representative Jared Golden said in a statement.
Paul Brace, a Rice University political scientist, said that, right now, there is less dispute over the facts than there is a battle between conflicting narratives about those facts.
“I think the average person should be glad there are procedures to check abuse of power, and that there are now processes to examine the evidence and law in an open, transparent manner. This will allow them to judge for themselves,” he said.
--With assistance from Evan Sully, Laura Litvan and Erik Wasson.
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