As Democrats move toward impeachment, a small group holds back

(Allison Zaucha | The New York Times) Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Calif.) speaks to guests at the Harry S. Truman awards dinner hosted by the Democratic Party of Orange County in Anaheim, Calif., Sept. 28, 2019. A tricky balancing act is now underway for House Democrats as they return to their districts for a two-week recess that will double as a crucial time to frame a coast-to-coast debate over impeachment and the nation’s priorities.

Washington • As Speaker Nancy Pelosi solemnly declared the opening of a formal impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump last week, and the steady stream of Democrats supporting it became something of a stampede, a small group of Democrats remained unconvinced.

The cluster of skeptics, mostly moderate first-term lawmakers in conservative-leaning districts, had dwindled to just a dozen by Friday, as lawmakers raced down the Capitol steps to catch flights and start two weeks of work in their districts. By then, many Democrats had joined the chorus of those backing an impeachment inquiry, worried about threats in primary elections and bowing to a rapidly shifting consensus in the caucus.

But for a few determined holdouts, there is not yet a reason to endorse the inquiry.

Instead, those willing to elaborate on their thinking have called for a “fact-finding investigation,” urging their colleagues to take a more methodical approach that could rise above the partisan fray. They took care to stress that they were concerned about the allegations the president faced about his dealings with Ukraine.

“Ensuring the strength of our democracy means we have to pursue the truth,” Rep. Kendra Horn, the only Democrat in the Oklahoma delegation, said in an interview. “And it means we do it in a bipartisan matter, in an honest and methodical manner.”

She later added, “I don’t make any judgment until I know all of the facts.”

Horn, like some of the other Democrats who have refrained from embracing the impeachment inquiry, faces a more challenging political reality than some of her other moderate colleagues: She is considered one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the House, fighting to keep her seat in a district that Trump swept in 2016, in an election year when both of their names will be on the same ballot.

The House Republican campaign arm delighted in the swift deluge of Democratic support last week for an impeachment inquiry, particularly among the more than 40 freshmen who seized Republican seats in 2018. They have embarked upon a politically tricky balancing act of their own, working to sell voters on the idea in swing districts.

But a smaller group of Democrats are not there yet. They said their reluctance to plunge into an impeachment inquiry stemmed from a desire to have a bipartisan process, as opposed to preserving their political futures.

“I’m going to do what’s best for our country,” Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-S.C., said. “It’s not going to be based on politics or getting reelected.

“Wherever the facts go, the law must follow,” he added. “Everybody should take it extremely seriously.”

For some reluctant Democrats, a primary challenge appeared to factor into their decision to back the inquiry.

Rep. Tom O’Halleran of Arizona, a leader of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, endorsed an impeachment investigation after his primary challenger criticized “#TimidTom” for not doing so earlier.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, the only one of 19 contenders for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination not to back an impeachment inquiry, came out in support of it Friday. She had condemned it previously as divisive for the country.

Her announcement came less than 24 hours after Kai Kahele, the Hawaii state senator seeking Gabbard’s seat, voiced his astonishment on Twitter that “any responsible Member of Congress who has taken the time to read & process the Mueller Report, the Ukraine call memo and the whistleblower’s report can still be opposed to opening an impeachment inquiry.”

Rep. Anthony Brindisi, the freshman Democrat who won his New York district by fewer than 4,500 votes, said his office had received a sharp spike in calls on impeachment last week.

“I’ve heard a lot of folks who have called our office in support of impeachment,” he told reporters outside the Capitol on Friday. “I’ve had a pro-Trump, anti-impeachment rally outside of my district office, so we’re hearing a good mix of opinions from people.”

Some moderate Democrats said they were eager to use the two-week break in their districts to get feedback about the opening of an impeachment inquiry and to explain that the investigation would not immediately translate to a vote on the House floor that could result in the president’s removal.

“I’m eager to get home as quickly as possible to hear from people directly,” said Rep. Max Rose, the freshman Democrat who represents the New York City borough of Staten Island, adding that there needed to be an effort to earn voters’ trust about the fairness of the impeachment process.

“They have got to understand that this is not a partisan process,” he said.

And some of the members acknowledge that their endorsement, or lack thereof, is unlikely to deter the overall direction of the caucus toward filing articles of impeachment.

“That ship has sailed, and the inquiry is happening,” Brindisi said. “Whether I’m for it or against it, it’s happening.”