The Breach Widens as Congress Nears a Partisan Impeachment

WASHINGTON — It was the rarest of moments in the nation’s capital, a seemingly sincere attempt at persuasion across the partisan breach by the Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee on the eve of the panel’s vote to impeach President Trump.

“I know this moment must be difficult, but you still have a choice,” Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York told his Republican colleagues at the start of more than 17 hours of debate on whether to remove Mr. Trump from office. “I hope that we are able to work together to hold this president — or any president — accountable for breaking his most basic obligations to the country and to its citizens.”

A short time later, the former Republican chairman of the committee responded with a plea to Democrats to abandon impeachment: “Put aside your partisan politics,” Representative Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin implored, “because the future of our country and the viability of our Constitution as the framers decided it, are at stake.”

But the appeals to rise above the tribalism of the moment from the two veteran lawmakers fell on deaf ears. They persuaded no one, and only served to contrast with the rancorous, sometimes personally vindictive debate that unfolded over the next two days in the Ways and Means Committee Room not far from the Capitol.

This was the very divisive impeachment debate that Democrats had always hoped to avoid.

In March, Speaker Nancy Pelosi told her new Democratic majority that barring “something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should” try to impeach Mr. Trump. “It divides the country,” she said then. “And he’s just not worth it.”

But now, less than three months after the allegations in a whistle-blower complaint catapulted Democrats into an investigation of whether the president pressured Ukraine for political gain, the country is exactly where Ms. Pelosi worried it would be — on the brink of an intensely partisan impeachment with deep consequences for both parties and the country.

When she gave the green light for impeachment articles to be drafted this month, Ms. Pelosi said, “the president leaves us no choice but to act,” arguing that to do nothing in the face of Mr. Trump’s transgressions would invite lasting damage to the Constitution and the institutions of government.

But by Friday morning, as the committee formally paved the way for the House to impeach Mr. Trump next week, both sides seemed to sense that political vandalism had already taken place. Representative Mike Johnson, Republican of Louisiana, predicted “irreparable damage to our country” and closed his final argument with a lament: “God help us.”

It wasn’t just that the committee eventually voted to approve two articles of impeachment, charging Mr. Trump with abusing the power of his office and obstructing Congress. Throughout the committee’s debate, the lawmakers from the two parties couldn’t even agree on a basic set of facts in front of them.

They called each other liars and demagogues and accused each other of being desperate and unfair. At one point, Republicans all but abandoned their pursuit of trying to persuade their Democratic colleagues, instead making a motion to strike the most critical lines out of the articles — essentially taking the “impeach” out of impeachment.

“It is silly,” Mr. Nadler complained about the proposed amendment not long before his Democratic majority rejected it on a 23-17 vote, the same party-line margin that emerged throughout the day, time after time, no matter the argument or the issue.

Lawmakers in both parties appeared to feel the weight of history as they delivered impassioned arguments over and over again, in five-minute chunks, alternating between Democrats and Republicans well into the night on Wednesday, and again on Thursday.

But if the passion was similar, the substance was not. Even for members of a profession who are used to talking past each other, it was striking how unwilling both Republicans and Democrats on the committee were to concede even an inch to the other side.

“Ukraine was not aware of the aid,” Mr. Johnson insisted Thursday, referring to the $391 million in security assistance that Mr. Trump had ordered withheld. If they didn’t know the money had been frozen, he explained, Ukraine couldn’t have been on the receiving end of a pressure campaign by the president.

When it was his turn, Representative Steve Cohen, Democrat of Tennessee, asserted exactly the opposite, alluding to email evidence and testimony that disproved Mr. Johnson’s argument. “They knew it on July the 25th,” Mr. Cohen said of the Ukranians. “There were communications from the embassy that have been released that they knew the aid was being held up. They knew it was being held up.”

It was an example of the different impeachment realities that the two parties are living in. But it was hardly the only one.

Representative Hank Johnson, Democrat of Georgia, described Mr. Trump’s July 25 call with the President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine one way, saying it “shows that the president tried to get President Zelensky to interfere in the upcoming presidential election.” His Republican colleague, Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, saw it differently: “We saw the call transcript, and there is no conditionality.”

And after Representative Andy Biggs, Republican of Arizona, said it was “clear” that Mr. Trump cared about rooting out corruption in Ukraine, Representative Eric Swalwell, Democrat of California, scoffed: “The president never brings up corruption.”

As the skies darkened outside and the clock ticked toward midnight on Thursday, both sides appeared to grow weary of the verbal combat.

“Republican colleagues are working overtime to try to convince us that we didn’t see what we saw with our own eyes and we didn’t hear what we heard with our own ears,” complained Representative Veronica Escobar, Democrat of Texas.

Representative Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the panel, had a more colorful way of expressing his frustration after being accused of trying to “muddy the waters” with fuzzy facts and questionable interpretations.

“If this was a muddying the waters, y’all are an E.P.A. hazardous waste site at this point,” Mr. Collins snapped back.

After three-and-a-half hours of opening statements on Wednesday, a marathon session on Thursday seemed like it would never finish as both sides engaged in a kind of mutually assured destruction — refusing to be the ones to call it quits first.

Determined to avoid the accusation that they shut down debate prematurely, Mr. Nadler gave every member who wanted it a chance to speak. Republicans, grumpy about a rumor circulating that their members wanted to leave early to attend the Congressional Ball at the White House that evening, refused to give Democrats the satisfaction of ending their speeches either.

The night finally ended with predictable rancor when Mr. Nadler abruptly called a recess right before taking a final vote, saying he wanted “the members on both sides of the aisle to think about what has happened over these last two days and to search their consciences.”

Instead, his decision — made without any warning and without the kind of bipartisan consultation that is common on the Judiciary Committee — added to the sense of mounting tension inside the grand room, where nerves were already frayed.

It was clear that despite Mr. Nadler’s advice, nothing had changed by 10 the next morning, when the weary committee members returned for a rare Friday session to take the party-line vote that had been a certainty all along.

Mr. Nadler moved swiftly to call for the final votes on the two articles of impeachment, and both passed with all 23 Democrats in favor of impeaching Mr. Trump and all 17 Republicans opposed.

In just 7 minutes, the work was over, and Mr. Nadler banged his gavel.

“Without objection,” he said, as some Republicans in the room scowled, “this meeting is adjourned.”

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