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Small group of Democrats floats censure instead of impeachment

POLITICO logo POLITICO 12/10/2019 By Sarah Ferris and Melanie Zanona
Josh Gottheimer wearing a suit and tie: Rep. Josh Gottheimer. © Win McNamee/Getty Images Rep. Josh Gottheimer.

A small group of vulnerable House Democrats is floating the longshot idea of censuring President Donald Trump instead of impeaching him, according to multiple lawmakers familiar with the conversations.

Those Democrats, all representing districts that Trump won in 2016, huddled on Monday afternoon in an 11th-hour bid to weigh additional — though unlikely — options to punish the president for his role in the Ukraine scandal as the House speeds toward an impeachment vote next week.

The group of about 10 Trump-district lawmakers included Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.), and Ben McAdams (D-Utah.).

“I think it’s certainly appropriate and might be a little more bipartisan, who knows,” Schrader said Tuesday when asked about the possibility of a censure resolution. But he acknowledged: “Time’s slipping by.”

The idea of censure, according to the lawmakers, is to offer a competing alternative to impeachment that could attract at least some Republican support on the floor. It would also help Democrats avoid a lengthy impeachment trial in the Senate, which some in this group fear could tilt public opinion toward the GOP in the final months before the 2020 election.

“Right now, there's no other options. This is another option,” said one lawmaker who attended Monday’s meeting.

The moderate Democrats know the odds of such an outcome are slim. Democratic leaders are confident that both articles of impeachment — which were publicly unveiled Tuesday morning — will have the necessary support on the floor, and they expect to lose few of their members.

The group of centrists is also far short of the roughly 18 votes needed to block impeachment on the floor, and any censure resolution would be nearly impossible to sell to the caucus at this point, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her leadership team have already settled on impeaching the president.

Democrats remain united on impeachment, with just two in the caucus on record opposing the House’s impeachment inquiry: Reps. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) and Jeff Van Drew (D-N.J.), who both sit in districts carried by Trump in 2016.

And Pelosi herself has previously publicly ruled out censure.

“I think censure is just a way out. If you want to go, you gotta go,” she told reporters in June. “If the goods are there, you must impeach. Censure is nice, but it is not commensurate with the violations of the Constitution should we decide that’s the way to go.”

Slideshow by photo services

Still, several of the moderate Democrats have discussed the possibility of censure privately for weeks, mostly in informal conversations on the floor or in smaller settings. But the conversations ramped up as top Democrats announced they were moving ahead with articles of impeachment this week.

The Trump-district Democrats say they are increasingly worried that a lengthy Senate trial — which could stretch into the spring — will result in an even more polarizing 2020 campaign.

Some of the Democrats involved have quietly reached out to centrist House Republicans in recent days to see whether they would be willing to censure Trump, according to multiple lawmakers, including in conversations on the House floor.

But while some Republicans privately acknowledge that censure would be a much tougher vote than impeachment, they doubt they will be confronted with that choice.

And unlike when Democrats floated censure during the Clinton impeachment, Republicans in the House and Senate are not actively looking for an escape hatch like censure.

The GOP has largely parroted Trump’s argument that he did nothing wrong in trying to pressure Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden. House Republican leaders are expecting few, if any, defections on the House floor.

“I don’t think [moderate Democrats] have enough to block impeachment. 10 to 12 max. But they’re working to raise it,” said one GOP lawmaker, who has discussed censure with some Democrats. “And [they’re] obviously reaching out to Republicans to see if they would join them.”

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