Why moderates are holding back on impeachment

Analysis: Some Democrats say they don't want to commit to articles they haven't seen.
Image: Nancy Pelosi
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's mandate now includes addressing the concerns of moderate Democrats worried that liberals in their own party are going to put forward articles of impeachment that are hard to vote for.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images

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By Jonathan Allen and Leigh Ann Caldwell

WASHINGTON — Like many of the 31 Democrats from districts President Donald Trump won in 2016, freshman Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., is feeling the squeeze of impeachment.

A former CIA, Pentagon and National Security Council staffer before winning election to the House last year, Slotkin helped launch the House inquiry into Trump's Ukraine scandal by co-writing an opinion column calling for a probe after an intelligence community whistleblower accused the president of abusing his office.

But now, as the House Judiciary Committee drafts articles of impeachment and Democrats from politically competitive districts wait to see how they are written, Slotkin is being lobbied by Republican colleagues who argue that Trump's actions — even if imperfect — don't amount to impeachable offenses and that she should accept, given her background, that the president needs room to use leverage in foreign policy.

Rep. Slotkin is among those being lobbied by Republican colleagues who argue that Trump's actions don't amount to impeachable offenses.Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images file

"I feel very strongly that in my prior life, we often went to other countries and foreign governments when I was at the Pentagon and said, 'We want you to do X in exchange for Y,' but that exchange was exclusively for the national security interests of the country, not for Elissa Slotkin's personal or political gain," said Slotkin, who hasn't committed one way or the other on impeachment. "And that's a pretty fundamental difference and that was the conversation I had with one of my peers."

While the GOP push hasn't been persuasive, moderate Democrats are worried that liberals in their own party are going to put forward articles of impeachment that are hard to vote for and even harder to explain voting for.

"There are serious implications for members of Congress if the members are not able to effectively communicate why this is so important and this is critical," Kristen Hawn, a Democratic strategist who works with moderate lawmakers and candidates, said. "It’s not political and that’s the difficult thing. Messaging isn’t always political. It’s communicating to your constituents why you voted one way or another for a principled reason."

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In other words, some of the moderates are willing to cast tough votes to impeach Trump, but they'd rather do it on articles of impeachment that don't include clauses they view as less solid.

So far, Democrats have been hindered in delivering a clear, strong and consistent message within their caucus and to the public in part because they remain divided over which charges to levy at Trump.

Democrats in politically difficult districts tend to favor writing charges that most closely hew to the Ukraine affair and might be most easy to explain to voters, while lawmakers from more solidly Democratic turf are feeling more adventurous and tend to want to reach out toward former special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe and other matters.

Moreover, according to sources who have spoken with centrist Democrats, there has been frustration with Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., over what is seen as a close-to-the-vest process for developing the articles of impeachment. But it’s ultimately House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who initiated a more formal process Thursday, who is running the show.

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"Judiciary’s not really reaching out to the people" whose political fates could rest on their impeachment votes, one senior Democratic aide close to party moderates said. "There are 31 Democrats who are going to have to live, breathe and die this vote for the next year."

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, seemed to play down that divide in an interview on MSNBC's "Andrea Mitchell Reports" on Friday, suggesting that her own panel would not wield as much power as it might appear to.

"I think the drafting of articles will be a collaborative effort," Lofgren, who is a close ally of Pelosi, said. "Really, all the members will be collaborating, and that decision will be made not just by the Judiciary Committee but in a collaborative way across our caucus."

Similarly, she took up for the more cautious approach in terms of the thrust of the articles.

"I think a narrowly focused matter relative to the material being reported to us from the intel committee is probably the most timely article to adopt, but we, as I say, will be listening to each other," she said.

Meanwhile Republican-aligned outside groups like the American Action Network have been trying to influence Democratic lawmakers by running advertisements and conducting polling in their districts. So far, that doesn't appear to have had any effect on votes in Congress. But the aim is clearly to either scare the incumbents away from impeaching Trump or to soften their support in the 2020 election.

House Democratic officials say they are confident that no matter what form and number the articles of impeachment ultimately take, they will be able to win a majority vote to impeach the president on at least one of them. But for now — with less than two weeks left before they plan to put impeachment on the House floor — there's still a lot of work to be done to get their caucus comfortable with articles that have not yet been rolled out.

One Slotkin donor who contributed to her 2018 campaign after they got to know each other in Washington's national security circles told NBC News that it makes sense for her not to commit her vote early publicly.

“She’s been careful and conscientious about the process," the donor said. "It’s no surprise that she’s continuing to do that now by keeping her powder dry and waiting to see the articles of impeachment before she decides how she’s going to vote on them.”