Judiciary approves new investigative powers with eyes on impeachment

The House Judiciary Committee voted along party lines Thursday to broaden the panel’s powers to investigate President TrumpDonald John TrumpRussian sanctions will boomerang States, cities rethink tax incentives after Amazon HQ2 backlash A Presidents Day perspective on the nature of a free press MORE as Democrats seek to build their case for impeachment — and clean up their oversight message amid a month of mixed signals.

The move does not launch a formal impeachment process, but marks the first time a Democratic panel has voted on language that explicitly lays out how the party’s ongoing investigations into alleged presidential misconduct could lead to drafting — and eventual votes on — impeachment articles.

The partisan 24-17 vote followed more than two hours of feisty debate, as Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerTrump adviser presses House investigators to make Bezos testify Nadler demands answers from Barr on 'new channel' for receiving Ukraine info from Giuliani Trump predicts Ocasio-Cortez will launch primary bid against Schumer MORE (D-N.Y.) made Democrats’ case for securing disputed information from an uncooperative administration, and Republicans rushed to Trump’s defense with accusations that Democrats are pretending to pursue impeachment without actually doing so. 

That debate over the status of the Judiciary investigation — is there an impeachment inquiry or is there not? — has dogged Democrats throughout the week, as even top leaders have sent mixed signals about the nature of the probe, muddling the party’s oversight message just as the process is heating up.

Nadler on Thursday both acknowledged the confusion and sought to eliminate it.

“This committee is engaged in an investigation that will allow us to determine whether to recommend articles of impeachment with respect to President Trump,” he said. “Some call this process an impeachment inquiry. Some call it an impeachment investigation. There is no legal difference between these terms, and I no longer care to argue about the nomenclature.”

Republicans pounced on what they called a mixed message coming from across the aisle, saying Democrats are attempting “a charade,” by invoking impeachment to satisfy the party’s liberal base but without voting to launch a formal inquiry, which could hurt vulnerable centrist Democrats at the polls in 2020.

"They know that most Democrats hate this president, and they've decided that he's guilty regardless of what the facts say," said Rep. Steve ChabotSteven (Steve) Joseph ChabotHouse GOP introduces bill to secure voter registration systems against foreign hacking DCCC to run ads tying 11 House Republicans to Trump remarks on entitlements Koch network could target almost 200 races in 2020, official says MORE (R-Ohio). "So instead the committee Democrats feel no choice but to investigate, and investigate, and investigate — until they find something that looks like a crime."

Yet Republicans also appeared to oscillate between claims that Democrats have launched a “faux impeachment” effort and arguments that the procedures vote is an impeachment vote.

“Democrats followed the yellow brick road, and now they’re fully lost in impeachment Oz,” Rep. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsTrump adviser presses House investigators to make Bezos testify House to vote Thursday on removing ERA ratification deadline Anti-abortion group backs Loeffler's election campaign after opposing her Senate appointment MORE (R-Ga.), the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said. “Try as they might, they can’t find their way out of the mess they’ve made because they think 'words don’t matter.' ”

The procedures adopted in Thursday's vote are designed to expedite the Democrats' probes into the White House by lending investigators more tools to secure documents and witness testimony. One provision empowers committee staff to question witnesses; another allows Nadler to designate any future hearing to be a part of the broader investigation.

Nadler said the new powers constitute “the necessary next step in our investigation of corruption, obstruction, and abuse of power.”

And while Republicans sought to challenge Democrats' procedure resolution by introducing three separate amendments, Democrats swatted them all down during party-line votes.

Still, Democrats remained largely quiet as Republicans monopolized the two hours bashing Democrats' procedures resolution and oversight investigation, with some sources indicating that this was a way to speed up the markup so that members could leave town for the weekend ahead of the third Democratic debate in Houston, Texas. And by doing so, some suggested it also prevented members from further jumbling Democrats' message on impeachment.

Updated at 11:03 a.m.