By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee moved to intensify its investigation of Republican President Donald Trump on Thursday, as lawmakers edged closer to deciding whether to recommend his impeachment.
The 41-member panel met to debate a resolution allowing it to designate hearings as impeachment proceedings, subject witnesses to more aggressive questioning and quicken the pace of an investigation that is expanding into areas that could prove politically explosive for both Trump and Congress.
Committee members also hope that approving the resolution will dispel lingering confusion within the House Democratic caucus about how to describe the investigation.
“We have been explicit about our intentions. This committee is engaged in an investigation that will allow us to determine whether to recommend articles of impeachment with respect to President Trump,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler told the meeting.
But a more aggressive probe could also increase pressure on House Democratic leaders including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has resisted impeachment as a politically risky step for moderate Democratic freshmen from swing districts where ousting Trump is an unpopular idea.
Republicans dismissed the resolution as a “fantasy” move intended to distract from Democrats’ unwillingness to have the full House authorize a formal impeachment inquiry, as occurred during the Watergate era and the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton.
“The ambiguity — the confusion — is a product of my colleagues’ own making because there is an easy way to know exactly whether this committee is in impeachment proceedings: It’s called a vote — a vote of the full House of Representatives,” said Representative Doug Collins, the panel’s top Republican.
Committee Democrats are already planning to use the new tactics that allow an hour of questioning by committee lawyers on one of Trump’s closest confidants – former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski – who is due to appear before the panel next Tuesday for what may be a contentious hearing.
Democrats on the committee say the resolution will enhance their ability to assemble allegations known as “articles of impeachment” against Trump. They expect Lewandowski’s testimony will help lay out a charge of obstruction of justice. But they are also pursuing allegations of campaign finance violations, witness tampering and unlawful self-enrichment through his business ventures.
Democrats aim to decide by the end of the year whether to recommend articles of impeachment against Trump to the full House. If approved by the chamber, the Republican-controlled Senate would be left to hold a trial and consider the president’s ouster.
A Reuters head count shows that 135 House Democrats back an impeachment inquiry. While that is a majority of the caucus, the number is well short of the 218 votes needed to pass a resolution.
Only two American presidents have been impeached by the House: Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Clinton in 1999. Neither was convicted by the Senate.
Former President Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 after the House Judiciary Committee approved articles of impeachment against him, but before the full House voted on the matter.
(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Giles Elgood)