It all came down to three buttons. The question was which one House Republicans dreaded pressing the most: the green one, the red one or the amber one.
Tiny boxes sporting those colored buttons dot the House of Representatives chamber. When the House calls votes, lawmakers cluster around the machines, insert their electronic voting cards and punch one of the buttons. The process registers either a yea, nay or “present” vote. A corresponding “Y,” “N” or “P” then pops up next to the member’s surname on a gigantic tote board in the House chamber.
Until late Wednesday night, House members expected to make a decision on whether or not to impeach IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. They even could have cast a ballot to postpone or kill the impeachment effort. Most GOPers who aren’t part of the conservative House Freedom Caucus cringed at their voting options.
As it turns out, lawmakers won’t have to vote on Koskinen just yet. Thanks to some behind-the-scenes wrangling from Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., the Freedom Caucus carved a deal with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., to hold an impeachment hearing with Koskinen present next Wednesday.
Rep. John Fleming, R-La., authored the impeachment effort alongside Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan. House Republican leaders were cool to the impeachment idea. So Fleming and Huelskamp engineered four articles of impeachment and tucked them into a special resolution designed to bypass the House GOP brass. The maneuver would compel the House to vote up or down on impeaching Koskinen. Some Republicans considered options to kill the effort through parliamentary maneuvering.
Fleming reveled in the outcome.
“This never would have happened without our efforts to bring this issue to the forefront,” crowed Fleming. “However, if regular order is not followed through, we still reserve the right to bring up a privileged resolution again in November and go directly to a vote.”
That could happen later. Impeaching the IRS Commissioner is red meat for the GOP base. But for now, House Republican leaders dodged a conundrum which would have exposed fissures in the party immediately before an election.
Republicans reluctant to impeach Koskinen knew they could face a torrent of criticism from constituents, conservative groups and right-wing talk radio if they didn’t vote aye on impeachment. In fact, Fleming and Huelskamp artfully crafted two of their four articles to goad conflicted Republicans into voting yes on impeachment. One article argued Koskinen “engaged in a pattern of deception that demonstrates his unfitness” to lead the IRS. The other accused Koskinen of making “a series of false and misleading statements to Congress in contravention of his oath to tell the truth.” Yank out the “impeachment” preface and most congressional Republicans would agree with both suppositions.
That’s what scared the Republican leadership. If the GOP was unable to euthanize the Fleming/Huelskamp gambit, then members would have to vote up or down on each of the four articles of impeachment. If the right morphed the votes into a torches and pitchforks moment, the House might actually impeach Koskinen and refer the matter to the Senate for trial.
Huelskamp framed the issue like this: “People have a choice. Either you are with the IRS or you are with the American people.”
Goodlatte has never been keen on impeaching Koskinen. Other members of the Judiciary Committee preferred “due process” for Koskinen. That’s where the committee actually writes articles of impeachment if it feels circumstances rise to that level. Only then would the committee – and potentially the House – vote on those articles of impeachment for Koskinen.
This is where the ploy to work impeachment through the committee may very well guarantee that the House never impeaches John Koskinen.
It comes down to the math.
A committee vote on an article of impeachment requires a simple majority. Undoubtedly, all Democrats would vote nay. But it would just take a few GOPers on the committee to also vote no. Such a coalition could kill the effort right there. If the resolution fails in committee, that's it. Done. Fin. The committee failed to report an impeachment resolution to the floor.
But imagine a scenario where the Judiciary panel does muster the votes for an impeachment resolution. Proponents of impeachment still face a math problem on the floor. Again, all Democrats would oppose an impeachment resolution. The Democrats then just need about 30 Republicans to vote nay, too. If that happens, the resolution fails.
It’s possible the House could consider impeaching Koskinen in the lame duck session following the election. Ironically, that timeline runs afoul of the House Freedom Caucus orthodoxy. Its members cajoled leaders for weeks against conducting a lame duck session at all.
At a forum of conservatives Tuesday, Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Ohio, argued for impeaching Koskinen. Plus, he said, “If someone is impeached, it's not like they're going to Gitmo.”
Even a sentence to Guantanamo Bay might not be in the cards. The Obama administration is trying to shutter the facility. With impeachment off the table today, the only bill scheduled for House debate is a measure written by Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind. Her bill prohibits the U.S. from transferring any detainee now incarcerated at Gitmo.
One thing’s for sure: lawmakers of either party won’t harbor the same angst about pressing one of those three, colored buttons on a Gitmo vote compared to what they could have faced with a vote to impeach John Koskinen.
Capitol Attitude is a weekly column written by members of the Fox News Capitol Hill team. Their articles take you inside the halls of Congress, and cover the spectrum of policy issues being introduced, debated and voted on there.