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Democratic impeachment holdouts grapple with rising pressure

By the time the week ended, Democratic caucus support for some sort of impeachment action was overwhelming — but not universal.
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WASHINGTON — This was the week the Democratic caucus wanted to move forward, or at least discuss, presidential impeachment — loudly, urgently, overwhelmingly.

But a few Democrats, just as decidedly, did not.

“At this point, it’s something that I would prefer not to do now,” said Rep. Jeff Van Drew, D-N.J., who said Wednesday that he had read the description of the midsummer phone conversation between President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that had been released earlier that day.

“Of course, there are some things in there that concern you a little bit that you may not be happy with. Whether that's really impeachment-worthy is a different question,” he said — one he still wasn't ready to answer.

This week, his fellow Democrats overwhelmingly responded in the affirmative — or at least, voiced support for launching a process that could end with a formal vote on that question.

By the weekend, as they headed out on a two-week congressional break, 225 of 235 House Democrats, had backed some form of impeachment action, according to NBC News’ latest count. One independent, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, a former Republican, also backed such action.

That meant more than 95 percent of the caucus had voiced support for some type of action on impeachment, and only 10 holdouts like Van Drew remained. Now the pressure on them from all sides is increasing, with each of them potentially decisive in any possible vote to actually impeach the president.

Those holdouts all represented districts Trump won in 2016.

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Their ranks dropped precipitously over the course of the week: On Wednesday morning, for instance, there were two dozen Democrats who had yet to publicly back some sort of impeachment action. By the end of the day, that number had dropped by a third.

Over the course of the past week, most holdouts had been notably reluctant to speak, with some ignoring or literally running from questions.

Reps. Kendra Horn of Oklahoma, Lucy McBath of Georgia, and Sharice Davids of Kansas, for instance, deflected queries from NBC News on Wednesday by directing reporters to contact their offices, which proved no more interested in responding. They did not return requests for comment.

But within another day, McBath and Davids were speaking up themselves — in favor of impeachment action.

So did some who had been more vocal in their reasoning for resisting Democrats’ ramped-up strategy, pointing to the practical and political implications of pursuing impeachment as the basis for their resistance — then, one by one, joining the rest of their caucus in backing an impeachment inquiry.

That included Van Drew. “Do I think it's actually going to slow down progress, to be candid? Yes, I do. I mean, this is going to suck up the oxygen in the room,” said the New Jersey congressman, who added he was “concerned” that it could cost his party the majority in the 2020 elections, shortly before he signed on to the push for some sort of impeachment action.

It also included Rep. Tom O’Halleran of Arizona, who told reporters Wednesday, before his public shift, that he hadn’t yet made a decision on impeachment in part due to concern it could distract Democrats from policy progress.

“The people of America are looking to get prescription drugs done, to get other health care issues taken care of," he said. "We have no choice but to make sure we work on those still."

Rep. Frederica Wilson of Florida told NBC News on Wednesday — when she did not yet back an impeachment inquiry — that the president was likely to survive any Senate impeachment vote and to claim vindication when he did.

“What do you think the president will do if [senators] don’t remove him? What do you think he’ll say to the American people? He’ll say it’s a witch hunt,” she said. "And when they do, he will then have one year to declare to the American people that ‘this was a witch hunt and cry no collusion, no obstruction; I am innocent; I am a martyr.’"

Still, by the next day, she had publicly backed the effort.

So had roughly two out of three Democratic members in 31 districts Trump won in 2016, including several members who wrote a Washington Post op-ed article explaining their decision.

Rep. Max Rose — the lone impeachment holdout in New York City's congressional delegation —was adamant Friday that he would not be pressured by the groundswell.

“I will not operate on any false timeline when our national security is at stake," he said in a statement. "My constituents — and our country — deserve Members of Congress who will review the facts and ensure the American people are fully informed. Those who would celebrate this moment or dismiss these serious allegations simply because it’s a Republican President should recognize that mindset is why the American people are disgusted with our politics.”

While the holdouts may have been the most visible Democratic departures from the party line, that line was by no means as decisive as the numbers might have suggested.

Though most in Democratic caucus have endorsed some form of impeachment action, their specific positions — the precise action they backed, how far they were comfortable going at the moment — varied widely.

Some members have said they back the impeachment inquiry that Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California formally announced on Tuesday. Others have already said that they should vote for articles of impeachment against the president.

But across the spectrum, nearly all Democrats — particularly those who, like Pelosi, shifted their positions this week — pointed to the memo detailing the president's comments on his summer call with Ukraine's leader. Those Trump remarks, said the speaker Wednesday, along with “the Justice Department’s acting in a rogue fashion in being complicit in the president’s lawlessness, confirm the need for an impeachment inquiry. Clearly, the Congress must act.”

Full coverage: Democrats launch impeachment inquiry

Whether that sounded like an order, many members who remained vocal about their reservations followed her direction, such as Frederica Wilson.

"I have hesitated to call for impeachment because I believe that any of the top-tier Democratic presidential candidates could beat Donald Trump like a drum in 2020. He would then go to prison for financial crimes committed in jurisdictions around the world," Wilson said in a Thursday statement.

Those concerns remained the same. But as the week ended, her position had shifted. "I fully support the House impeachment inquiry,” she said.