Dems set to debate Trump impeachment in post-Mueller era

House Democrats will huddle Tuesday morning in the Capitol for the first time since the release of special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE's report on 2016 election tampering, which has heightened liberal calls for the impeachment of President TrumpDonald TrumpRealClearPolitics reporter says Freedom Caucus shows how much GOP changed under Trump Jake Ellzey defeats Trump-backed candidate in Texas House runoff DOJ declines to back Mo Brooks's defense against Swalwell's Capitol riot lawsuit MORE — and complicated the efforts of Democratic leaders seeking a more restrained response.

Heading into the gathering, most Democrats appear to be on board with leadership's cautious strategy, which rejects impeachment — at least for now — while various House committees continue to investigate the president's conduct. 

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At the same time, lawmakers are acknowledging that there are more voices talking about moving forward with impeachment in the post-Mueller world.

"To be sure, there are more people now talking about it and are more favorable toward that movement. But I also think more people are willing to do what the Speaker said," said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. "We need to allow these committees of jurisdiction to proceed with their work."

A handful of liberal Democrats have been beating the impeachment drum, saying they've seen ample evidence already that Trump has acted in ways that should disqualify him from the office.

"Mueller kicked the impeachment ball to the Congress," Rep. Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersBipartisan bill will help level the playing field for small businesses Republicans hammer HUD chief over sluggish rental aid Key GOP lawmaker backs Powell for another term as Fed chief MORE (D-Calif.) tweeted last week. "The Constitution gives the responsibility to Congress to impeach an unfit president — 'high crimes and misdemeanors.' What more do we need?"

Rep. Jared HuffmanJared William HuffmanHaaland: No plan 'right now' for permanent drill leasing ban Safe and ethical seafood on the menu this Congress Modernizing transportation can help tackle the climate crisis MORE (D-Calif.) carved a distinction between those lawmakers calling for impeachment articles to be brought to the floor immediately and others, including himself, who are pushing to launch an impeachment inquiry. But he called it "reckless" to rule out the process altogether.

"We have to stop tiptoeing around this issue," Huffman said. "We have to stop walking on eggshells as if impeachment is not something that's a part of our job description."

Outside activists have also joined the fray. Need to Impeach, a group founded by the billionaire environmentalist Tom SteyerTom SteyerOvernight Energy: 'Eye of fire,' Exxon lobbyist's comments fuel renewed attacks on oil industry | Celebrities push Biden to oppose controversial Minnesota pipeline | More than 75 companies ask Congress to pass clean electricity standard Celebrities push Biden to oppose controversial Minnesota pipeline Six things to watch as California heads for recall election MORE, used the long spring recess to deliver more than 700,000 postcards to the offices of more than 30 House lawmakers. While the group targeted both parties, it leaned heavily toward Democrats, including Reps. Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerHoyer urges conference talks on bipartisan infrastructure bill Hoyer suggests COVID-19 rules will stay — and might get tougher Senators reach billion deal on emergency Capitol security bill MORE (Md.), the majority leader; James Clyburn (S.C.), the majority whip; Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffOfficers offer harrowing accounts at first Jan. 6 committee hearing Live coverage: House panel holds first hearing on Jan. 6 probe Five things to watch as Jan. 6 panel begins its work MORE (Calif.), chairman of the Intelligence Committee; and Steve CohenStephen (Steve) Ira CohenOmar leads lawmakers in calling for US envoy to combat Islamophobia Trump says being impeached twice didn't change him: 'I became worse' Five big questions about the Jan. 6 select committee MORE (Tenn.), who heads the Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution. 

There seem to be three camps emerging as Democrats wrestle with an appropriate response to the Mueller report: those clamoring for impeachment; those who oppose it altogether, for fear of the potential political blowback at the polls next year; and those in the middle, who want to investigate the president vigorously and see where the process leads.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiHouse to resume mask mandate after new CDC guidance McCarthy pulls GOP picks off House economic panel GOP up in arms over Cheney, Kinzinger MORE (D-Calif.) and her leadership team, joined by the heads of the top committees, fit firmly in the latter group. They want to see the full, unredacted Mueller report with underlying documents, hear testimony from Mueller himself and use that information to guide their own probes. Only if that process finds evidence of severe wrongdoing on Trump's part — enough that public sentiment shifts, forcing Republican lawmakers to back impeachment — would it be appropriate to launch proceedings, they argue.

"That may not happen until their constituents start saying, 'Hey, I'm a big Trump guy, I have my red cap here, but you know I just heard testimony that really troubled me,'" said Cleaver.

"That's exactly the way it ought to go, if it's going to go," Cleaver added.

Rep. Jimmy PanettaJames Varni PanettaOvernight Defense: US nearing halfway point of Afghanistan withdrawal | Army soldiers mistakenly raid olive oil factory House Democrats introduce bill to protect transgender military dependents The case for improving America's research and experimentation tax credit MORE (D-Calif.), a former prosecutor, said Mueller's report uncovered presidential wrongdoing that "could easily" constitute obstruction of justice. But the impeachment process, he noted, is both essentially political — since it hinges on the votes of sitting lawmakers — and practically futile without the support of Senate Republicans. 

"As a prosecutor, you don't just look at the law and the facts. You look at the big picture, and you take into account your discretion, and that means taking into account your courtroom, taking into account the jury," Panetta said. "You have to look at that in coming up with your analysis of whether or not you go forward in regards to impeachment. And knowing the ultimate outcome, based on the makeup of that jury in the Senate, it seems to me that it wouldn't be a winner."

Indeed, Republicans in both chambers — some of whom supported the impeachment of former President Clinton and then hammered former President Obama with charges that he abused power — have been notably silent in the wake of the Mueller report. While a handful of GOP lawmakers expressed some concern with the findings, most joined Trump in characterizing the report, falsely, as a full exoneration of the president on both the "collusion" and obstruction questions. 

"I think it's time to move on," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHouse to resume mask mandate after new CDC guidance Five takeaways from a bracing day of Jan. 6 testimony McCarthy, McConnell say they didn't watch Jan. 6 hearing MORE (R-Ky.). "This investigation was about collusion, there's no collusion, no charges brought against the president on anything else, and I think the American people have had quite enough of it."

The GOP's change in tone has not been overlooked by Democrats, who are accusing Republican leaders of being hypocrites in their defense of the president.  

"Ask them how they're going to stand by while this President tramples over our constitution, democracy and the rule of law," said a senior Democratic aide. "Why aren’t they equally as outraged by this president’s behavior?"

In the same breath, however, many Democrats are also stressing the need to win GOP support if any impeachment movement is to have legs. 

"That's also where we need to apply pressure," the aide said. "It's not viable unless these guys start to feel some heat."