House

Pelosi, Nadler tangle on impeachment, contempt vote

There is growing daylight between Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) over the best strategy for combating a Trump administration that is flouting a flurry of congressional subpoenas at nearly every turn.  

The pair of powerful Democrats clashed in recent days over whether to launch impeachment proceedings against President Trump and how soon to hold a contempt vote against Attorney General William Barr.

Nadler, spurred by frustrated Judiciary Committee members, has been privately pushing leadership for both an impeachment inquiry and a contempt vote immediately after lawmakers return from their weeklong Memorial Day recess.

Pelosi is still urging a go-slow approach, concerned that Democrats have not yet swayed public opinion about why such aggressive tactics are necessary. The Speaker is also pointing to a string of court victories over the Trump administration and business entities, bolstering Democrats' arguments that the law is on their side as they methodically probe the president.

The Judiciary Committee "has to make a stronger public case for moving forward with contempt in a way that would persuade the public, that is disciplined enough to persuade the public, and box in the Republicans and really elevate their level of complicity in the president's wrongdoing and his campaign of obstruction," said a senior Democratic source tracking the fight playing out in the 235-member caucus.

"Trump has just given us a gift, and we have to use it to our advantage," the source said. More public outreach "needs to be done before you take a vote on contempt or impeachment."

In a closed-door emergency caucus meeting this week, Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), a Pelosi ally, made a point many saw as pushing back at the pressure from Nadler and others on Judiciary, who are increasingly frustrated by the administration's stonewalling.

Welch stood up and said that while Democrats may eventually have to move forward with impeachment, they should not do so just because of pique within the Judiciary Committee.

It seems it's "just the Judiciary Committee that's getting dissed" by the Trump administration, Welch said, according to a source in the room. Democrats, he added, cannot let that dictate the actions of the entire Congress.

Pelosi has consistently sought to tamp down calls for impeachment, believing the party is better off competing with Trump in the 2020 election over health care and other issues.

Polls bolster her position. Only 28 percent of Americans said starting impeachment proceedings should be a top priority for Congress, according to a recent Morning Consult/Politico poll.

Nadler, under pressure to show his committee is winning its war with Trump, has assumed a more aggressive posture in recent days.

In a private meeting with Pelosi and her top lieutenants this week, Nadler explained that the majority of his committee members were clamoring for an impeachment inquiry against Trump and that he, too, thought this was the best course of action now, sources familiar with the meeting said.

But Pelosi and others rebuffed him - a development Nadler later reported back to Democrats on his Judiciary panel during in a separate, closed-door gathering, committee members said.

Nadler has also challenged Democratic leaders on moving quickly to a contempt vote on the floor for Barr, who is refusing to testify to his committee.

During a Democratic whip meeting, he said the House should vote on June 4, according to Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), who attended that meeting.

Top Democrats were surprised that Nadler was floating a specific date when Pelosi and others had not yet settled on a strategy. Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), whose panel is nicknamed the "Speaker's committee" because it works so closely with the Speaker, told The Hill it would be "odd" for lawmakers to vote on contempt as their first act after being away from Washington for 12 days.

The broader 235-member caucus needs to have more debate and discussion before taking such a serious step, he said, adding that Pelosi had not signed off on the June 4 vote.

Pelosi's office declined to comment, but the Speaker told colleagues this week she has "great admiration and respect" for Nadler. 

Nadler declined to comment about the contempt vote or impeachment as he left the Capitol for the long recess. His aides declined to comment for this story.

But appearing on MSNBC on Thursday night, Nadler confirmed earlier reporting by The Washington Post that he had pressed Pelosi to act more swiftly on starting impeachment proceedings.

"I urged the Speaker to speed things up and consider an impeachment inquiry," Nadler told MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, though he conceded that Democrats' recent court victories had made his argument for impeachment "much weaker."

The 14-term New York lawmaker is backed by an overwhelming majority of his fellow Judiciary Committee Democrats.

Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.) called it a "good sign" that Nadler is aggressively pushing for a contempt vote on June 4. The House plans to adjourn again on June 5 to allow for lawmakers to fly to France to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy.

"We have to work with urgency. You can't let people ignore subpoenas, obstruct justice, obstruct the American people getting the truth," Dean told The Hill. "We have to act with the urgency that that demands."

"I think the right strategy is to move on all of it as quickly as possible," added Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), another Judiciary Committee member. Trump is "melting down, and the world is starting to see that he just doesn't intend to allow Congress to do its job; he just simply refuses to accept that there's a separate and coequal branch of government at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue."

That sentiment for speedy action is shared by many other Judiciary Committee members, including Reps. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), Joseph Neguse (D-Colo.), Pramila Jayapal (Wash.), Val Demings (D-Fla.), Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and Jamie Raskin (D-Md.). Lieu and Raskin are lower-ranking members of Pelosi's leadership team.

"I support doing [contempt] at the earliest possible date," Raskin, who also serves on the Rules panel, told The Hill.

But Judiciary Democrats are not unanimous. Some are deferring to the strategy detailed by Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) this month: Wait until Democrats have identified a group of individuals who are defying congressional subpoenas, and then vote on multiple contempt citations at once in a big package. That would also clear floor time so Democrats could pursue other legislative priorities.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), a Judiciary panel member who has called for the start of an impeachment inquiry, described waiting on contempt as a "strategic move." He pointed to other House committees that are also pushing for documents and weighing contempt citations for those refusing to honor subpoenas.

Raskin, a former constitutional law professor and unabashed liberal, downplayed the disagreements over impeachment and contempt as simply a family discussion about the best way to proceed.

"The whole caucus is in a discussion about which strategy is going to move us forward to counter the lawlessness of the administration," Raskin said in a phone interview with The Hill on Friday.

"I don't see us in any way divided or polarized," he continued, adding that "all of the tools in constitutional toolkit are on the table now."

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