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With impeachment proceedings moving swiftly after a spree of dramatic hearings, the expectation that the House will vote to impeach President Trump and trigger a Senate trial has been treated as a fait accompli — but the president’s allies still see a scenario, however remote, wherein congressional Democrats could fall short.
As with so many debates in Washington, it could all come down to the moderates.
A senior administration official claimed Friday, after the apparent conclusion of House Intelligence Committee hearings, that it’s “not clear the House is going to impeach.”
This, despite House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., declaring the “evidence of Trump’s misconduct is already overwhelming” — and many Democrats playing up testimony that linked top officials to a pressure campaign on Ukraine to investigate the Bidens and asserted an Oval Office meeting, and possibly aid, were used as leverage.
Yet as with the Russia investigation, while the hearings have been covered extensively — featuring analysis replete with phrases such as “game over” and “the walls are closing in” — the polling suggests the needle isn’t moving much in the court of public opinion.
Among critical independents, there are troubling signs for impeachment backers. Fifty percent of independents questioned in an NPR/PBS/Marist poll conducted Nov. 11-15 did not support impeaching and removing Trump from office, with just 42 percent backing such a move. That’s a slight dip in support compared with the previous NPR/PBS/Marist poll – conducted the first week in October – when support stood at 45 percent.
While that poll was conducted before last week’s high-profile testimony, it raises the possibility that the hearings in Washington are not resonating so much outside the Beltway.
Under pressure from aggressive GOP ads, it remains unclear whether vulnerable Democrats in districts Trump won would have the stomach to go through with impeachment in the end even if the party appears united against Trump now. Just two Democrats voted against the resolution establishing the inquiry last month: Reps. Collin Peterson of Minnesota and Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey. But voting to start the process and voting to impeach the president are different political equations.
A window into the pressure campaign to keep Democrats in line came over a 48-hour period this week when Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich., changed her tune twice on impeachment.
On Sunday, Lawrence said she no longer saw any value in the process and called on Democrats to back a symbolic censure resolution instead.
“We are so close to an election,” Lawrence said Sunday on a Michigan radio program, noting that Trump stands little chance of being convicted by the GOP-controlled Senate. “I will tell you, sitting here knowing how divided this country is, I don’t see the value of taking him out of office. But I do see the value of putting down a marker saying his behavior is not acceptable.”
While Lawrence presented a censure as a “marker,” it would also mark a climbdown for Democrats, whose impeachment push has sidelined almost every other political issue since the summer.
But on Tuesday Lawrence issued a new statement, saying she continues to support impeachment.
“I was an early supporter for impeachment in 2017,” Lawrence said in a statement. “The House Intelligence Committee followed a very thorough process in holding hearings these past two weeks. The information they revealed confirmed that this President has abused the power of his office, therefore I continue to support impeachment.”
Asked by Fox News whether Democratic leadership pushed for the latest statement, an aide said: “Not that I know of.” But the aide suggested the congresswoman still likes the idea of a censure, saying, “What she was trying to say is that because she doesn’t think the Senate will convict, that maybe censure would be a viable option.”
The Republican National Committee promptly sent out an email blast crowing that Democrats are getting “cold feet” and “vulnerable” members “should listen to their constituents and be the next group to abandon ship.”
Other Democrats have expressed some uncertainty without tipping their hands. Rep. Donna Shalala, D-Fla., told The Washington Examiner that she doesn’t know if the impeachment hearings will change voters’ minds.
“I’ll have to see,” she said. “Whether it will shift their minds one way or the other, I don’t know that.”
The next few weeks are key.
Lawmakers are likely to keep a close eye on how public opinion shifts or doesn’t over the Thanksgiving break. Democrats in pro-Trump districts could face difficult decisions — and while the math is in the pro-impeachment favor, it isn’t a slam dunk.
A simple majority — 216 of 431 members — is needed to impeach. There are 233 Democrats, meaning that presuming anti-Trump independent Rep. Justin Amash backs impeachment, Democrats can lose 18 of their own and still impeach the president.
Thirty-one of those Democrats represent districts carried by Trump in 2016. Those members will be watched closely as the House Judiciary Committee takes up the case and considers articles of impeachment as soon as next month.
As for Republicans, it seems extremely unlikely that any will break off. Republicans such as Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, who was eyed as a possible break-off from the GOP, recently indicated he will vote against impeachment.
Democrats also face the prospect of a Republican-controlled Senate trial, in which Republicans could use the proceedings to go on offense and call their own witnesses to make their case that there was Ukrainian interference in 2016, or that former Vice President Joe Biden or his son’s conduct in the country was inappropriate.
Sensing a possible opening, the Republican National Committee is ramping up the pressure on Democrats in pro-Trump districts. As reported by The Daily Caller, the RNC is running ads urging voters to pick a lawmaker who “won’t waste taxpayer $$$ on partisan impeachment.”
“[House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi herself said impeachment must be ‘compelling,’ ‘overwhelming,’ and ‘bipartisan,’” RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel tweeted.
“After 2 weeks of sham hearings, the Democrats’ case against @realDonaldTrump is dead — and the only thing that’s ‘bipartisan’ is the opposition to their entire charade,” she said.
Fox News’ Gregg Re and Ronn Blitzer contributed to this report.