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Don’t read too much into last week’s impeachment vote

By Casey Burgat

The House’s move to impeach President Trump took a big step forward last Thursday with the adoption of a resolution that outlines the parameters of the next and public phase of its ongoing inquiry. The resolution passed by a vote of 232-196, with all Republicans and, importantly, two Democrats—Jeff Van Drew (D-NJ) and Collin Peterson (D-MN)—voting against the measure.

Of course, both sides are saying the first-on-the-books vote related to impeachment was good for them. Democrats are using the vote to claim justification of their probe, largely undercutting the process arguments Republicans have lobbed at them for conducting much of the fact-finding portion of the inquiry behind closed doors. Republicans, too, have real reason to claim victory. They remained unified down to the very last member, and even picked off two Democratic defectors in the process, despite some fears that they might have a few Republicans jump ship and join the Democrats.

But despite not getting one Republican House member to back the inquiry, there are several reasons why Democrats shouldn’t lose all hope of GOP representatives joining them on future votes for articles of impeachment.

First, this wasn’t a vote on impeachment. This was a vote only about the rules and processes the House will follow in upcoming impeachment proceedings, such as which committees get to hold public hearings or how long witnesses are questioned. To many, this may seem like a distinction without a difference, but it actually provides Republicans political cover to explain their no vote later on. Some Republicans can simply claim they didn’t like the rules laid out in the resolution and voted against them.

In other words, there still could be some (small) number of GOP Representatives that are inclined to support the inquiry, and even impeachment, but just couldn’t support the rights afforded to the minority within the resolution. Is this very likely? No, but it provides some plausible explanation should some Republicans join Democrats on voting to impeach at a later date: they were for the inquiry, but the process wasn’t good enough to support.

Relatedly, Republicans are well aware this vote on process will soon be forgotten. The impeachment proceedings are steaming ahead with an extremely ambitious timeline. We are about to enter the public phase that will dominate news coverage across the country and inundate voters with so many names, facts, witnesses, allegations, testimonies, and party spin that Thursday’s vote will only be remembered by the most observant Hill observers. It probably won’t even make the history books, and the names of the two Democratic no-votes will quickly become answers at Capitol Hill trivia nights instead of front page news.

Third, some Republicans may have voted no on Thursday because they knew it would pass. Again, this may seem counterintuitive, but because the result was so expected, sticking together on the vote became relatively costless for the Republicans. The result was already factored in. In fact, a unified vote was likely seen by lawmakers as their best shot to stem the growing tide of public opinion favoring impeachment. Republican leaders almost certainly told each and every Conference member that the best way to appeal to independents and wavering Republicans was to speak with a unified voice that the inquiry wasn’t supported. They were also repeatedly warned that the defection of just a few members would be catastrophic to their message of a tainted, secretive, corrupt process.

By keeping the party-line and message fused, the GOP can now look forward to weeks of talking points that the process and substance of the inquiry is so illegitimate that it couldn’t even convince all Democrats to fall in line. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has already begun to read from script in saying that the only bipartisan vote on that floor was against” impeachment. Similar talking points can and will continue.

But most importantly, Democrats should still remain hopeful about garnering Republican support for the simple fact that they haven’t made their case yet. All investigative actions to date have been towards gathering information. Most members aren’t even privy yet to all of the investigation’s transcripts or documents, nor have they seen or directly heard from various witnesses—several of whom are decorated public servants—about what they knew when. And most notably, all the public knows so far is what has been included in opening statements from depositions or what has been tactically leaked by political actors involved in the process.

We, lawmakers and voters included, don’t know what other information has been heard or has yet to make its way to the investigating committees, but it’s a certainty we don’t know everything. Republicans can later claim that it was the public airing of information, or seeing new details become accepted facts, that persuaded them to join the Democratic chorus.

If there is an up-or-down vote on articles of impeachment, it will come after the Democrats make their case for impeachment to the American people—a case Republicans will then have to defend on the substance rather than the process. If and when that vote occurs, it will be the only vote that anyone will remember. For Republicans, there is still time for dissent.

Casey Burgat is a Resident Senior Fellow of the Governance Project at the R Street Institute.

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