Backstory: An impeachment vote turnaround stuns Washington
Republican move was meant to embarrass Democrats; Conyers' Judiciary Committee seems tepid
Dennis Kucinich walked into his Capitol Hill office Tuesday evening clearly exhausted but full of hope. The Ohio Democrat had just returned from the House floor where crafty Republicans had joined with dozens of liberal lawmakers across the aisle to prevent Democratic leaders from scuttling Kucinich's call to impeach Dick Cheney.
"The millions of Americans who have called on Congress to stand up for the Constitution are finally being heard," Kucinich told reporters in his office after lawmakers had spent two hours on the House floor considering his impeachment move.
What was supposed to be a relatively simple -- and largely symbolic -- vote meant to allow a handful of lawmakers to formally level their displeasure with Vice President Dick Cheney turned into a full-blown fracas as Republicans used some last-minute maneuvers to help keep impeachment alive.
"I'm not going to deny there was some (political) gamesmanship," Kucinich said of the Republicans who joined him to keep impeachment alive. Regardless of the GOP motives, though, Kucinich said Cheney deserved to be impeached for lying to Americans in the run-up to the Iraq war. The dark-horse Democratic candidate said the vice president's ouster was the best chance America has to avoid another war with Iran.
Seven months after first introducing articles of impeachment of the vice president, Kucinich finally grew fed up with his party's leaders who had steadfastly refused to even consider kicking the current administration out of the White House. Even before she had first rapped the Speaker's gavel, Nancy Pelosi declared adamantly that impeachment was "off the table."
Kucinich, the former mayor of Cleveland, found a way around his leaders' objections, though. On Tuesday he introduced a privileged resolution on impeachment in the House. Because impeachment involves a question of Congress's Constitutional role, Kucinich's proposal was allowed to jump the legislative queue and receive an immediate floor vote.
The privileged resolution was hailed by pro-impeachment activists as a way to finally get lawmakers on the record about whether Cheney deserved to keep his job.
About 20 Code Pink activists gathered outside a Capitol Hill conference room where Kucinich was expected to speak to reporters. They were joined by a dozen Capitol Police officers, apparently wary of outbursts from the group that has made a name for itself disrupting events on the Hill, but Kucinich aides were unable to explain the heavy police presence.
As expected, the resolution was immediately met with a motion to table that would've effectively scuttled any further impeachment discussion. That move came from Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), who like most rank-and-file Democrats opposes attempts to impeach Cheney or President Bush.
What happened next came as a surprise to virtually everyone. Instead of taking the opportunity to kill impeachment, Republicans saw an opportunity to embarrass Democrats and force them to spend several hours on a resolution that most believe has essentially no chance of passage.
As the 15-minute vote was nearing its close, Republicans began requesting -- one at a time -- the opportunity to change their votes. This not only prolonged consideration of impeachment, keeping the vote open for an hour longer than scheduled, it shifted enough support to scuttle the Democrats' attempt to kill the bill.
“We don’t wish to save the Democrats from themselves when their left wing exposes themselves,” Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) told Roll Call, noting that Democratic leaders were trying to draw as little attention as possible to the impeachment issue by voting to table the resolution. “When there’s an opportunity to show their strong left base, it’s important for it to be seen,” he added.
The motion to table failed on a 251-162 vote with 165 Republicans voting against tabling the impeachment resolution. Democratic leaders -- and even Kucinich's staff -- expected the tabling motion to pass easily giving the quirky Democrats bill a quiet death. Even the 86 Democrats who voted against their party's efforts to kill the bill came as a surprise; Kucinich's resolution had 22 co-sponsors and an aide to the Congressman told RAW STORY before the vote that few Democrats who weren't co-sponsors were expected to vote to keep the bill alive.
Ultimately, the fate of Kucinich's bill is unlikely to change. Democrats were nearly unified on a vote to send the impeachment articles to the Judiciary Committee, where it has languished since Kucinich began his effort to oust Cheney in April.
Kucinich and other progressive lawmakers implied that Judiciary Chairman John Conyers assured them he would move forward on impeachment, despite his previous reticence to do so.
"I've spoken to Mr. Conyers, and I'm quite confident that the bill is in good hands," Kucinich told reporters at a press conference in his office after the vote.
A statement from the Judiciary Committee was less optimistic, saying the committee has a "very busy agenda," including upcoming action on a foreign surveillance bill and attempts to hold current and former Bush aides in contempt of Congress. A committee spokeswoman would not elaborate on the statement, but told RAW STORY it should not be seen as an outright dismissal of a possible impeachment hearing.
"We were surprised that the minority was so ready to move forward with consideration of a matter of such complexity as impeaching the Vice President," read a committee statement e-mailed to reporters an hour after the vote. "The Chairman will discuss today's vote with the committee members but it would seem evident that the committee staff should continue to consider, as a preliminary matter, the many abuses of this Administration, including the Vice President."
Conyers was perhaps Bush's most vocal critic after the 2004 elections. In 2005, he introduced a motion to censure Bush over Iraq and torture allegations, seeking to create an select committee to investigate the administration’s intent to go to war prior to congressional authorization.
The intent -- at the time -- was to subpoena the President and other members of the administration in hopes of ascertaining if impeachable offenses have been committed.
In fact, the thought that Conyers was planning to push for impeachment if the Democrats took control of the House in 2006 was so strong that he penned an article in the Washington Post titled "No Rush to Impeachment."
"As Republicans have become increasingly nervous about whether they will be able to maintain control of the House in the midterm elections, they have resorted to the straw-man strategy of identifying a parade of horrors to come if Democrats gain the majority," Conyers wrote in May 2006. "Among these is the assertion that I, as the new chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, would immediately begin impeachment proceedings against President Bush."
"I will not do that," he added. "I readily admit that I have been quite vigorous, if not relentless, in questioning the administration. The allegations I have raised are grave, serious, well known, and based on reliable media reports and the accounts of former administration officials."
Since then, Conyers has not ruled out impeachment proceedings. House Speaker Pelosi has.
“I have said it before and I will say it again: Impeachment is off the table,” Pelosi said during a news conference in 2006.