Impeachment splits reveal partisan USA as Trump comes under further pressure
Divisions mean trial of president becomes a simple numbers game
In a momentous week for US politics, this week's virtually certain House impeachment of Donald Trump will underscore how Democrats and Republicans have morphed into fiercely divided camps since lawmakers impeached Bill Clinton.
Just 21 years ago this Thursday, a Republican-led House approved two impeachment articles against Democrat Clinton. While that battle was bitterly partisan, it was blurrier than the near party-line votes expected this week when the House, now run by Democrats, is poised to impeach Republican Trump.
Two of the four Clinton impeachment articles were killed - something party leaders today would jump through hoops to avoid for fear of highlighting divisions.
All four Clinton articles drew Republican opposition, peaking at 81 on one vote. That's an unthinkable number of defections today.
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"Obviously it was partisan, but it wasn't as intensely partisan as today is," said Representative Peter King, the last remaining member of that group of four Republicans who opposed all the Clinton impeachment articles in Congress. "So you could basically argue conscience. You could say you looked at it and didn't think this was the way to go."
In the upcoming votes on impeaching Trump, Democrats expect support from all but a few - two to perhaps five - of their members. Republican leaders envision no Republican desertions.
Few defections are expected by either side when the Senate holds a trial, probably in January, on whether to oust Trump from office. No one expects Democrats to muster the two-thirds Senate majority needed for removal over charges that he leveraged US aid and a White House meeting coveted by Ukrainian leaders to pressure them to announce investigations of his Democratic political foes.
Most Democrats were dismissive of the Republican's impeachment charges that Clinton lied to a grand jury and others about his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Clinton was a lame duck but widely popular president presiding over a booming economy, and polling showed that impeachment had little support. Democrats had little reason to back the effort to remove him and many Republicans thought twice.
That helps explain why 81 Republicans opposed one defeated Clinton impeachment article. The other three articles drew 28, 12 and five Republican "no" votes. No more than five Democrats backed any of the articles impeaching Clinton.
Former Republican Representative Tom DeLay was chief vote counter in 1998 and known as 'The Hammer' for his effectiveness in lining up support. Last Friday he urged wavering Republicans to read evidence gathered by Ken Starr - the independent counsel who led the investigation into Clinton that led to the impeachment. DeLay said party leaders "cannot break arms" on an impeachment vote because it is too important. Current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she's not lobbying Democrats on the Trump votes.
Trump faces re-election next year and has a strong track record of weaponising Twitter to demolish the political careers of Republicans who oppose him. Two now retired Republican senators left Congress following running battles with Trump, and a House Representative lost a party primary last year after running foul of him.
"If you cross Trump, you're a short-timer when it comes to politics," said John Feehery, a political consultant. In contrast, several House Republicans who opposed at least one Clinton impeachment article saw their careers prosper.
The calendar of both impeachment votes will another factor influencing how the US politicians vote. The House's Clinton impeachment votes came a month after congressional elections, giving incumbents two years until they next faced voters. However the Trump impeachment votes will come as the 2020 primary season is about to begin, putting recalcitrant Republicans at risk of facing Trump-backed primary challengers.