Could House impeachment proceedings drag on into 2020? The timing's unclear

Is there enough time for lawmakers to deposit articles of impeachment on the House floor this calendar year? Or, could this wait? Finally, do Democrats have the votes to impeach?

If a House impeachment vote drifts into 2020, analysts likely will crow that it would be extraordinary for the House to attempt to impeach President Trump in “an election year.” But, it’s tough to calibrate the political advantages or disadvantages of doing impeachment in December or when the calendar flips.

It’s doubtful that in the future, the public would recall precisely when the House voted to impeach. Republicans would assert that Democrats were so brazen that they “impeached the president in an election year.” Putting impeachment on the floor in, say, October, just before a November general election, may be a real no-no. However, nobody on the Hill has suggested that scenario would be in play.

Heretofore, few actions on impeachment by either side have altered the public’s perception of impeachment. So, if the “needle” never moves, then it might not matter when the House considers articles of impeachment on the floor.

Democrats may prefer to complete the impeachment process expeditiously and push it to the Senate.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., presented his panel’s impeachment report to the caucus of Democrats on Wednesday morning – receiving a standing ovation. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., asked rank-and-file Democrats to give one another time and space to reach their own conclusions about impeachment. Democrats who spoke in the meeting indicated they wanted the inquiry to continue on what was described as a “deliberate path.”

The Intelligence Committee concluded its probe this week. During Wednesday’s inaugural Judiciary Committee impeachment hearing, Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said the panel will “reconvene and hear from the committees that worked to uncover the facts before us.” Fox News is told the committee will invite the majority and minority sides to present their cases in a public forum.

Intelligence Committee Democrats released their report Tuesday. Republicans published a “pre-buttal” response ahead of time, on Monday.

It’s impossible to judge if the panel may hold additional hearings with witnesses. Nadler said if members determined there were “impeachable offenses, then we must move swiftly to do our duty and charge him accordingly.”

Hearings and other public sessions may not be required in the impeachment process, but if Democrats intend to impeach the president on the floor, they first must craft actual articles of impeachment.

The Judiciary Committee would write articles of impeachment in what’s called a “markup” session. Markups aren’t hearings. There are no witnesses. It’s just all of the members of the committee, sitting on the dais, offering articles of impeachment, amendments to those proposals and debating the merits or demerits of various plans. For instance, the Judiciary Committee considered five articles of impeachment for then-President Richard Nixon in 1974, but the panel ultimately approved only three.

So, if the full House were to impeach the president this year, the time crunch is real.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., announced earlier this week the body will stay in session until almost Christmas. Democrats emerging from their caucus meeting Wednesday morning told reporters they were advised to stick around Washington through Dec. 21 or 22. It should be noted that the House impeached then-President Bill Clinton on Dec. 19, 1998, in a rare Saturday session, just before Christmas. So, a Christmastime impeachment would be plausible.

But, would Democrats have the votes for impeachment? Pelosi has been a master at reading her caucus. If Pelosi has the votes, she’ll likely give the green light to impeach on the floor. If Pelosi doesn’t have the votes, impeachment could wait – conceivably until the new year. Voting to impeach – or not impeach – could hinge on precisely what articles the Judiciary Committee were to draft.

The key would be having the votes. There are currently 431 members of the House. It takes 216 to impeach. There are presently 233 Democrats. That means Democrats can afford to lose only 17 of their own and still impeach. Democrats could lose 18 if Rep. Justin Amash, I-Mich., voted to impeach. Such parliamentary algebra also would mean a swath of the 31 Democrats representing districts that Trump carried in 2016 would have to vote to impeach.

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In addition to the math, Democrats are facing another conundrum.

Impeachment would consume an enormous amount of time on the House floor. The legislative freight demanded by impeachment is one of the most significant responsibilities facing the House. An impeachment debate can’t run for just an hour or two on the floor.

Here’s what else the House may have to tackle in the coming days:

Democrats have been trying to approve the annual defense bill, consuming floor time. The House and Senate have to figure out a way to fund the government before 11:59:59 p.m. ET on Dec. 20. Otherwise, there would be another holiday shutdown like last year.

It’s possible the House and Senate could approve a handful of the annual 12 spending bills and then do an interim spending bill for the remainders. Or, lawmakers could weave together a clump of outstanding appropriations bills and fund the government that way. No matter the path, funding the government takes time.

And, here’s the big issue: Analysts point out congressional Democrats simply cannot allow a government shutdown this time and impeach the president. Otherwise, Trump and Republicans would proclaim that Democrats were too busy impeaching the president and not on conducting the most basic of congressional tasks: funding the government. Democrats have been aware of this quandary. So, in some ways, the impeachment of Trump in 2019 could hinge on whether there’s an agreement on government spending.

Also gravitating in the congressional ether: the new trade pact between the U.S., Mexico and Canada, known as the USMCA. If Democrats sprint ahead with the USMCA this month, which isn’t likely, there’s almost no way the House could tangle with impeachment on the floor.

Democrats could face a messaging problem heading into the holidays. The floor traffic is vexing. That’s why some senior Democratic sources have suggested impeachment could wait until the new year -- although it’s not a sure thing.

One source close to Pelosi was skeptical of moving impeachment this month.

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“I just don’t see it,” the Democratic source said about advancing impeachment before Christmas. “It’s too big.”

Ultimately, a 2019 impeachment of the president could depend on bandwidth.