Congressional investigations have long timelines. House Republicans do not.
Two-hundred and thirty-nine House Republicans are facing down a November 2018 mid-term election, which will determine whether they get to keep their jobs. They have to weigh the merits – and the costs – of supporting President Donald Trump.
On the face of it, House Republicans are in an enviable position because they are in the majority and have the opportunity to work with a Republican president to pass landmark legislation.
But as waves of Russia-related allegations make headlines nationwide, and as Senate and House hearings run alongside a newly-launched special counsel probe into the Trump administration’s connections with Russia, the legislation languishes.
Recently, Florida Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo and Michigan Republican Rep. Justin Amash became the first in their party to mention impeachment.
The two Congressmen issued carefully worded statements. But Curbelo corrected news reports to ensure he would be credited with being the first to do so.
Bringing formal charges of wrongdoing against the president is something lawmakers in the Republican-controlled House can do with a simple majority.
It’s a risky move that could set the stage for shifts among the other 22 House Republicans who hold districts won by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016 and are betting that a close election fight could be decided by a public stance on Trump.
Assessing voter sentiment
For most members, the decision on whether to stand with Trump is still in the future. Currently in the midst of a ten-day recess, legislators are getting a first chance to talk to voters in their districts since the appointment of the special counsel May 17.
In a Quinnipiac University poll released last Wednesday, 54 percent of American voters said President Trump is abusing the powers of his office. Sixty-six percent of those voters said the U.S. House should investigate the allegation that President Trump asked FBI Director Comey to drop the investigation into fired national security adviser Michael Flynn.
But national numbers don’t matter that much to members who just want to win back their districts.
“House Republicans face this challenge where a lot of these districts have a lot of Trump voters – not 40 or 50 percent, they’re looking at 70 percent, and so they think as long as people like Trump, I’ll be OK in my district,” said Brookings Institution Governance Studies fellow John Hudak.
But Hudak adds that most House Republicans don’t know how their own districts are trending because the election is still too far away to poll.
“I think once Republican congressmen and women start running polls in their districts, they are going to see the reality of this anger (against Trump), and that is what will move them,” he said.
While most congressional seats are not expected to change parties, the non-partisan Cook Political Report rates six Republican House seats as open toss-ups and 19 seats as competitive but leaning towards the Republican incumbent.
Voters in Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District gave Trump a nine-point win over Hillary Clinton. But since their congressman, Justin Amash, has never fully supported his party’s president, his early openness to impeachment wasn’t surprising.
“We’re strange bedfellows,” Michele DoeVoe Lussky, membership chair and mobilization whip for the western Michigan chapter of the progressive activist group Indivisible, told VOA. “We support about 50 percent of what Justin Amash is doing because he is for transparency, because he is against Trump.”
Lussky has called Amash’s office to thank him for pushing back against the president but says “that doesn’t mean his seat is secure in this district.”
In the Florida 26th – where Clinton beat Trump by 16 points – Indivisible Miami member Karen Burgos said Curbelo’s openness to impeachment will not impact her vote.
“I think this is a way to make a play for people who are independents who are souring on Trump and it’s a way for him to say, ‘I’m not in step with the GOP, the establishment,’” Burgos told VOA.
She sees the emergence of strong Democratic challengers as the turning point for Curbelo – and for other House Republicans around the country.
“Then maybe we’ll see more of a rush to distance themselves and say, ‘Hold on, I called for impeachment,’” Burgos says.
The U.S. House returns to work in early June facing a full legislative agenda but with an ever-watchful eye on the public mood. For many of the 239 Republican members of Congress, the White House comes second to a return trip to Capitol Hill.