A politically-fractured House of Representatives voted on Thursday to authorise and open up the impeachment hearings against President Donald Trump, meeting a demand by him and the Republicans.
The resolution that also set up the framework for the impeachment sailed through the House where the Democrats have a majority and the move was proposed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The votes, mostly along party lines, were 232 for the resolution and 196 against. Only two Democrats joined the Republican in voting against it.
Although the Republicans had demanded open hearings and their increased participation, they opposed the resolution because it did not meet all their demands. Their attempt to amend the resolution was earlier defeated.
A group of Republican members of Congress last week barged into the underground chamber where the secret hearings were held and demanded to be allowed to participate to highlight their opposition to the secret proceedings.
They left after hours of a dharna-style protest and the hearings started about five hours late in secret.
Pelosi, who presided over the voting on Thursday, appealed for support saying: “It’s about the truth. And what is at stake in all of this is nothing less than our democracy.”
She said that it was being taken up solemnly and without any “glee”.
As the House took up the resolution, Trump tweeted: “The Impeachment Hoax is hurting our Stock Market. The Do Nothing Democrats don’t care!”
Later the White House issued a formal statement saying: “The Democrats’ unhinged obsession with this illegitimate impeachment proceeding does not hurt President Trump; it hurts the American people.”
“Speaker Pelosi and the Democrats have done nothing more than enshrine unacceptable violations of due process into House rules,” it added, accusing them of “wasting” time instead of taking up important issues facing the nation.
This is only the third time an impeachment process has been launched.
Then Presidents Andrew Jackson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998 were impeached but the Senate did not convict them.
Former President Richard Nixon resigned before the impeachment process could begin.
The House Intelligence Committee will hold the first set of hearings under its chair, Adam Schiff, and produce a report for the Judiciary Committee, which will have the final say in drawing up the charges against Trump in what is known as Articles of Impeachment.
After the full House votes to approve the Articles of Impeachment with a simple majority, the Senate will hold a formal trial presided over by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts on the charges.
Two-thirds of the 100 Senators will have to vote to convict the President and remove him from office. As of now, it seems unlikely that there will be that many Senate votes for impeachment, making the process nothing more than a political catharsis.
Nominally the proposed impeachment procedures give the Republicans some rights in the conduct of the proceedings to assuage their complaints about being sidelined.
The Republican Party leaders, David Nunes on the Intelligence Committee and Dough Collins on the Judiciary Committee will have the right to call witnesses, but the chairs can object and call for a committee vote, where there is a Democratic majority.
CNN quoted Republican Representative Greg Walden as complaining: “It is still not set up as a fair process” because “the Democrats call all the shots.”
Jim McGovern, the chair of the Rules Committee that finalised the draft resolution that set out the procedures, dismissed the Republican concerns, saying, according to CNN: “Their sole mission is to circle the wagons around Donald Trump. They’re not interested in the truth.”
Trump’s lawyers will be allowed to participate in the Judiciary Committee’s proceedings by submitting evidence and cross-examining witnesses.
But if Trump prevents witnesses from appearing before it or refuses requests for documents, his lawyers will not be allowed to continue examining witnesses.
Only the chair and the Republican leader – and/or their lawyers – on the panel will first question witnesses for 45 minutes each and other members can examine them for a limited time.
Pelosi had resisted having the full House vote on impeachment or have the proceedings in the open but finally gave in.
The vote undercuts Trump’s excuse to not allow witnesses or to provide documents to the inquiry because he said the House had not approved it.
It also shuts down complaints about the secrecy, which gave the Democrats an upper hand through selective leaks.
It was not clear when the open hearings will begin. The House has a week of recess next week, during which the secret inquiry may be wound up to pave the way for open hearings.
A key figure in the White House Drama, John Bolton, who was fired by Trump as the National Security Adviser and whose name has figured in some of the testimonies, has been asked to appear before the inquiry next week.
If the open hearings end up delaying the final impeachment vote till the end of this year or beyond, they could create problems for the Democratic Party’s process of selecting its candidate to run against Trump.
The primaries and caucuses that determine the support for candidates at the state level leading up to the convention start in early February. If the impeachment trial in the Senate overlaps this period, it could be a distraction and also interfere with the campaigns of candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris who are Senators.
Meanwhile, another important issue, the continued funding of the government, looms next month while the House will be grappling with impeachment.
The funding ends on November 21 and if Congress does not pass the legislation authorising the spending or it Trump doesn’t sign it, government operations will shut down, except for the most essential ones.
A 35-day shutdown occurred between December last year and January when Trump refused to approve the budget without allocation for his border wall and most federal workers were temporarily laid off and services were curtailed. As Pelosi stood firm, Trump compromised.
Currently, the government is being run on a temporary measure under what is known as a continuing resolution by Congress to provide interim funding.
Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer warned that Trump may create another shutdown to divert attention from the impeachment.
“I am increasingly worried that President Trump may want to shut down the government again because of impeachment, an impeachment inquiry. He always wants to create diversions,” he said.