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Democratic freshmen holdouts on impeachment face rising pressure

For many lawmakers this August recess, there was no dodging the issue on the home front, whether their districts were solidly blue or more closely divided.
A demonstrator with a sign reading \"Impeach now\" takes part in Trumps Birthday Protest in front of the Trump International Tower, June 14, 2019 in New York.
A Trump birthday protest, in front of the Trump International Tower in New York on June 14, 2019.Johannes Eisele / AFP - Getty Images file

MIAMI — Inside a packed town hall meeting late last month in a Democratic district, the first three out of four questions that constituents peppered freshman Rep. Donna Shalala with focused on just one issue: why she is among the 101 House Democrats who have not publicly and explicitly backed an impeachment inquiry.

“Do you support an impeachment inquiry now into the president’s activities?” asked one man in Miami’s City Hall, surrounded by palm trees along the shore of Biscayne Bay.

“That’s precisely what we’re doing now,” Shalala responded, speaking to an audience of about 60 people. “The Judiciary Committee is doing an impeachment inquiry.”

Voters at the town hall appeared less satisfied with her careful time frame than Shalala was, and they returned again and again to the original query.

House Democrats' 2019 Issues Conference
Rep. Donna Shalala of Florida, center, is among the Democratic lawmakers facing constituent pressure to publicly back an impeachment inquiry.Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images file

The dwindling number of Democratic lawmakers who haven't taken a position on whether they support an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump used to have a ready explanation: They weren't answering the question, they said, because their constituents back home weren't asking.

But for many Democratic members this August recess, there was no dodging the issue on the homefront, whether their districts were solidly blue or more closely divided.

At a town hall back in her home district in the western suburbs of Chicago, Rep. Lauren Underwood came out for impeachment. Rep. Brad Schneider, also of Illinois, did the same just hours before his own public meeting with voters. Rep. Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania., who won the fierce fight for his formerly red seat last year, didn't — but was repeatedly pressed on the question at the constituent session in his district.

So was Shalala. “We need to make a clear narrative and then Judiciary will make a recommendation to the House of Representatives, to our caucus, on whether we will start the articles of impeachment,” she said at last month's town hall, calling the president a “racist and a sexist.”

“Let me make this clear: There is no one in this room that wants President Trump to go away more than me,” said Shalala, who was elected last November to the seat held for 29 years by retired GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

Shalala echoed the argument made by Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California that Democrats are gathering information and methodically going through the process by issuing subpoenas for documents and testimony from key witnesses. Now that Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., has said that he’s initiated an investigation somehow linked to an impeachment inquiry, some Democrats in Congress say they don’t have to explicitly endorse it.

On the other hand, many constituents — including several at Shalala's town hall — seem to want to hear their representatives do just that, especially now that a majority of the Democratic caucus has taken that position publicly.

Polls — including a Monmouth University survey released the week before Shalala's town hall — have suggested that around 7 in 10 Democrats support an impeachment inquiry. Well under half the independent voters surveyed agreed; the number for Republicans lies in the single digits.

So far, more than half of the House Democratic caucus — 134 out of 235 — have publicly backed an impeachment inquiry, with the pace quickening in the wake of the release of special counsel Robert Mueller's report this spring. Of that group, 28 are freshmen, 13 of whom flipped seats last November that had previously been held by Republicans.

After most lawmakers left Washington for the six-week August recess, Nadler and members of the Judiciary Committee insisted that his panel has already "in effect" been conducting an impeachment inquiry of the president, and announced in a court filing made that day that “articles of impeachment are under consideration as part of the Committee’s investigation, although no final determination has been made."

That committee, of which Shalala is not a member, is on track to take a formal vote this week when lawmakers return to Capitol Hill after their monthlong recess to set the impeachment probe's parameters.

The vote, expected Wednesday and confirmed to NBC News by a source familiar with the committee's plans, will include language that is expected to follow the procedures the Judiciary Committee used in 1974 during the Nixon impeachment proceedings.

Shalala is among the 37 freshman Democrats who have not publicly favored an impeachment inquiry. Nearly all of them, including Shalala, flipped their seats in last year’s midterm elections; Cook Political Report has rated 15 of their races as toss-ups next year.

Ira Rubin, 65, a registered Democrat, pressed Shalala further at her town hall about why she hasn’t explicitly supported an impeachment inquiry, imploring her to explain what was stopping her from joining more than half of her caucus.

“It’s not a hard call to say, Do you support impeachment proceedings? It may be a harder call to vote for impeachment,” Rubin told NBC News before the town hall.

That position wasn't universal among those present.

“I’m ambivalent about it,” said Charity Johnson, a 65-year-old Democrat. “I think that it could backfire. I don’t doubt that there’s just cause for it, but I’m not sure that it’s going to accomplish what the Democrats want and those who all want to get the current president out of office.”

Shalala, who served as President Bill Clinton’s Health and Human Services secretary during his two terms and the Clinton impeachment process, told NBC after the event that in her view, an impeachment inquiry is just a semantic term. If Nadler believes there’s enough evidence to justify filing articles of impeachment, she said, he will make that recommendation.

That didn't mean she would necessarily agree with it.

Asked if she would go along with Nadler’s recommendation outright, she demurred. Nadler is “pretty careful," she said, but "I would not commit myself right now. But if that’s the recommendation to the House, my guess is the votes may be there.” It wasn't clear if she was including her own.

The impeachment query actually comes accompanied by a series of thorny, related political questions for freshman Democrats: whether they might lose re-election if they back an impeachment inquiry — or will be "primaried" by another Democrat if they don’t. Whether a vote in favor of articles of impeachment could cost them their seat — or, thanks to base passion, power them to another term.

And perhaps the biggest question of all, one Republicans have raised time and again: whether any House vote on the issue risks the Democratic majority.

Still, some freshman Democrats facing tough re-election fights — such as Underwood, and Rep. Katie Porter of California — have made their bet this summer on backing the impeachment inquiry.

Constituents pressing lawmakers on impeachment last month weren't alone. Over the summer, a coalition of progressive advocacy groups — including Indivisible and Tom Steyer’s Need to Impeach — launched Impeachment August, an online resource that tracked where members of Congress were holding public events, urging supporters to show up and lobby lawmakers to back impeachment. The groups said in late August that at least 17 House Democrats, two of whom are freshmen members, have come out in favor of the inquiry since they launched the effort.

Laurie Woodward-Garcia, who leads Broward for Progress, a Florida offshoot of Indivisible, attended Shalala’s town hall. Afterward, she held a large orange sign outside City Hall that read: “Impeachment inquiry now.”

She told NBC News that she and a handful of her members visited all of the congressional offices in south Florida over the previous three weeks, meeting with lawmakers’ staffs and calling on the members to back an impeachment inquiry.

“I said, ‘I promise you that if we don't hear back from said member in the next couple of weeks before they go back [to Washington], I will return with more people and we will start to get louder,’” she said. “That's what I consider the first step, if you will ... just alerting them that we're watching.”

These groups are focused not only on rank-and-file members; they want to influence Democratic leaders, too. In coordination with far-left group CREDO Action, Free Speech for People helped promote a protest last month outside of a San Francisco fundraiser where Pelosi was being honored.

“We're focusing pressure on Speaker Pelosi herself, who's been resistant to the notion that the House should proceed in this way,” said Free Speech for People President John Bonifaz.

Even as these calls for impeachment grow louder in some swing districts, some Democratic members in other areas of the country remain dead set against it — at least for now.

“I don't support impeachment," freshman Rep. Anthony Brindisi of New York said by phone. "And I think, by and large, the appetite for impeachment is not there by the American people, and by the people in the district that I represent.”

His Central New York constituents, he said, want lawmakers to focus instead on improving the lives of everyday Americans.

“I don’t want to see us get bogged down in investigations, because one thing I've learned over my time in Washington so far is it's very easy for Congress to get sidetracked on issues when I think we should be focused on health care and other important issues that got folks like myself into office,” he added.

But like many of his fellow freshmen holdouts, he wouldn't rule anything out: “Obviously if there is clear and convincing evidence of criminal activity by the president, that's a conversation we have to have.”