All year, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has tried to avoid a messy House of Representatives debate on impeachment — but this week, her luck ran out.
Using a procedural tactic known as a privileged resolution, Rep. Al Green (D-TX) has forced the House to take action on articles of impeachment against President Trump. On Wednesday afternoon, then, the House began voting on the matter.
However, there may not be a direct vote on whether Trump should be impeached. First, members are voting on whether Green’s impeachment resolution should be set aside (“tabled”), as leaders of both parties want.
A “yea” vote will mean shelving impeachment for now (though not necessarily forever). A “no” vote would mean keeping Green’s resolution on the House floor and proceeding to an actual vote on impeaching Trump. Should Republicans and most Democrats come together and vote “yea,” as expected, that will kill the impeachment measure for the time being.
Green’s move is a response to Trump’s racist tweets from Sunday, when the president wrote that “‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen” who came from “corrupt” countries should “go back” where they came from. The tweet appeared to refer to Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA).
But even the dozens of Democrats who have spent months calling for Trump’s impeachment aren’t necessarily on board with Green’s tactics here. Politico’s Kyle Cheney and Andrew Desiderio report that some of these Democrats “fear” Green’s “rogue move” could end up flopping and hurting their overall effort to build support. Meanwhile, as Vox’s Ella Nilsen has been tracking, a lot of Democrats are more comfortable calling for an “impeachment inquiry” than straight-up impeachment.
A question of privilege
Ordinarily, House leadership has tight control over what actually gets to the floor to be voted on by the whole chamber. But there are a few rarely used exceptions to this (such as a discharge petition, where a majority of the House’s members can force a floor vote on something stuck in committee).
Another exception is what’s known as raising a “question of privilege.” As Megan Lynch wrote in a Congressional Research Service report, this is “a formal declaration by a Member of the House asserting that a situation has arisen affecting ‘the rights of the House collectively, its safety, dignity and the integrity of its proceedings.’” (It’s often referred to in shorthand as a “privileged motion” or “privileged resolution.”)
Basically, this is a special measure that takes priority over everything else the House can do (except a motion to adjourn). Once it is raised by a member (and ruled valid by the speaker), floor action must occur on it within two legislative days.
Impeachment resolutions can be pushed to the floor through a question of privilege, according to ample past precedent. During George W. Bush’s presidency, then-Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) used this tactic for impeachment articles against Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. During Obama’s presidency, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) used it for pushing impeachment of then-IRS Commissioner John Koskinen.
There is, however, a catch: This tactic cannot force an up-or-down vote on the impeachment articles themselves.
That’s because what generally happens in response is that a motion to table — that is, to kill — the privileged motion — is brought. That vote is the first one to happen, and it usually succeeds. (This can also be done with a measure to refer the privileged motion to a committee.)
Green has already done this twice — under Republican control
This is actually the third time Green has forced a procedural vote on impeaching Trump, though it’s the first since Democrats took over the House.
In 2017, Green argued after the violence at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that Trump should be impeached for his “record of inciting white supremacy, sexism, bigotry, hatred, xenophobia, race-baiting, and racism.”
The impeachment articles he introduced mentioned several specific matters:
- Trump saying there were “very fine people” among white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville
- Trump retweeting three anti-Muslim videos
- Trump’s travel ban, which Green said incited “hate and hostility”
- Trump’s ban on transgender people serving in the military
- Trump’s criticism of NFL players who knelt during the national anthem
- Trump casting “contempt on Puerto Rican citizens” after Hurricane Maria
- Trump’s insults of Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL)
Then in December 2017, Green used the privileged motion tactic to force his impeachment articles to the floor of the Republican-controlled House.
The GOP responded with a motion to table, which easily carried. All 238 Republicans voted to table Green’s measure, and so did 126 Democrats. Only 58 Democrats voted to keep it on the floor.
Green waited just a month before trying again. Outraged over reports that Trump said he wanted fewer immigrants from “shithole countries,” Green added that example to his impeachment articles and forced another vote, on January 19, 2018. Again, every Republican voted to table the measure, as did 121 Democrats. This time, 66 Democrats voted to keep it on the floor.
Democrats have been trying to avoid an impeachment debate this year
Since then, Democrats have taken over the House, and several newly elected members of Congress quickly called for the president’s impeachment in no uncertain terms.
But the consensus belief among most in the party — especially Pelosi and her allies — has been that it would be a political mistake to move too hastily toward impeachment. They believe it would divide the party, endanger vulnerable swing seat members, and end in certain failure (due to defeat in the Republican-controlled Senate).
Still, gradually over the past several months, support for opening an impeachment inquiry into Trump has grown among Democrats — 82 House Democrats now back such a move, per the New York Times’s count. That’s a little more than one-third of the caucus: a significant faction, but still a minority. They’d be joined by Rep. Justin Amash (I-MI), who recently left the Republican Party.
Green could have forced a new vote at any time, but up until now, he’s held off. Trump’s new racist tweets have spurred him to action — even though, he fully admits, it might not be the best strategic move.
“Dr. King reminds us that there are times that you have to do that which is neither safe nor politic nor popular,” Green told Politico. “You do them because they are right.”
At a press conference Wednesday, Pelosi said she had “all the respect in the world” for Green. But, she made clear, she opposes his move: “We have six committees that are following the facts with any abuse of power, obstruction of justice, and the rest. That is the serious path that we are on.”
As for Green’s resolution, Pelosi added, “We will deal with it on the floor.”