WASHINGTON — A bitterly divided House of Representatives voted Thursday to endorse the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, in a historic action that set up a critical new public phase of the process and underscored the toxic political polarization that serves as its backdrop.
The vote was 232-196 to approve a resolution that sets out rules for an impeachment process for which there are few precedents, and which promises to consume the country a little more than a year before the 2020 elections. It was only the third time in modern history that the House had taken a vote on an impeachment inquiry into a sitting president.
Two Democrats broke with their party to vote against the measure, while Republicans — under immense pressure from Trump to shut down the impeachment inquiry altogether — unanimously opposed it.
Minutes after the vote, the White House press secretary denounced the process as “a sham impeachment” and “a blatantly partisan attempt to destroy the president.”
Practically speaking, the resolution outlines the rights and procedures that will guide the process from here on out, including the public presentation of evidence and how Trump and his legal team will be able to eventually mount a defense.
But its significance was more profound: After five weeks of private fact-finding, an almost completely unified Democratic caucus signaled that, despite Republican opposition, they have enough confidence in the severity of the underlying facts about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine to start making their case for impeachment in public.
The vote removed almost any doubt that Democrats would bring a full-fledged impeachment case against Trump for his apparent efforts to pressure a foreign power into investigating his domestic political rivals. Less clear is how quickly Democrats can move to formalize their charges and, whether through public hearings and the presentation of new evidence, they can win over any Republicans.
To that end, the resolution appeared to be designed to challenge Republican criticisms that Democrats had spent the last few weeks shredding important precedents in their zeal to remove a president from office under the cover of secretive depositions. Democrats urged Republicans to view Thursday’s vote as a turning point in the process, the moment when every House member must begin engaging with the evidence itself.
The dramatic vote, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi presiding from the wooden rostrum in an unusually packed House chamber, came after an impassioned 45-minute debate that was fraught with the weight of the moment.
Pelosi read from the Constitution. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the minority leader, quoted Alexander Hamilton. Lawmakers listened from their seats, stone-faced and somber, while members of the public watched from the crowded gallery above.
“This is not any cause for any glee or comfort,” Pelosi said, as she stood beside a large placard of an American flag. “What is at stake in all of this is nothing less than our democracy.”
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., the chairman of the Rules Committee, said lawmakers were “not here in some partisan exercise.
“There is serious evidence that President Trump may have violated the Constitution,” he said.
Republicans worked feverishly to hold their ranks together in opposition, with Trump rallying support at the White House before the roll call. Though many of the rules are nearly identical to those Republicans adopted in 1998 when they impeached President Bill Clinton, party leaders insisted that supporting the resolution amounted to legitimizing what they view as an indefensible three-year campaign to undo the results of the 2016 election.
“Democrats are trying to impeach the president because they are scared they cannot defeat him at the ballot box,” McCarthy said. “Why do you not trust the people?”
Though it is not a perfect comparison to votes taken to authorize impeachment inquiries into Clinton and President Richard M. Nixon, Thursday’s outcome underscored the depth of partisan polarization now gripping American politics. Democrats delivered a show of unity that just weeks ago seemed improbable, with even many moderate lawmakers who are facing difficult reelection races in conservative-leaning districts voting in favor of moving forward.
Whereas the vote against Nixon registered only four objections and 31 members of the president’s party endorsed the inquiry into Clinton, this time, not a single Republican defected.
Two Democrats, Reps. Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota and Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, voted against the measure, while Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, the House’s lone independent, supported it.