WASHINGTON — If the U.S. House ultimately moves to impeach President Donald Trump, two suburban Philadelphia congresswomen could be on a team of Democrats that makes the case to the U.S. Senate to oust the president from the White House.
U.S. Reps. Mary Gay Scanlon, from the Delaware County-based 5th District, and Madeleine Dean, of Montgomery County’s 4th District, sit on the powerful House Judiciary Committee, the panel at the center of the heated impeachment debate playing out on Capitol Hill.
They’ve used the perch to assail Trump’s behavior in response to congressional oversight requests, and both congresswomen are poised to be key players as the House navigates its next moves.
It remains far from certain that House Democrats will attempt to go the impeachment route. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and many others in the caucus have been wary of that option, given the potential for political blowback.
But other Democrats are clamoring to launch proceedings aimed at ousting the president, and many say they’re at least open to taking that path in the future.
Asked about the prospects of impeachment moving to a Senate trial, Scanlon told the Capital-Star in a brief interview on Capitol Hill, “That is so far ahead of where we are.”
She added, “We’re focused on next steps and right now the next step is getting the full Mueller report and the underlying evidence.”
Scanlon, vice chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee, was previously the leader of the pro bono program at the high-powered Philadelphia law firm Ballard Spahr (whose ranks include former Gov. Ed Rendell). She was also an attorney at the Education Law Center.
Dean, also a lawyer, served in the state House of Representatives and was executive director of the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association.
Both Dean and Scanlon are newcomers to the U.S. House. Scanlon joined in November 2018, after winning a special election, then a full term in her own right. Dean was sworn in with the freshmen class in January.
Asked about a possible Senate impeachment trial, Dean said this week, “I’m always happy to do my job and do my duty, and I know we have a lot of duties here.” But, she cautioned, “You’re way ahead of me on that one.”
Both Pennsylvania Democrats have been among those calling for more scrutiny of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Scanlon this week organized her Democratic colleagues to hold a marathon public reading of Mueller’s report.
Lessons from Clinton saga
If the House does indeed agree to impeach the president, President Bill Clinton’s Senate trial offers some lessons about how lawmakers could be picked to make the case to the upper chamber.
The House voted to impeach Clinton in December 1998, and the next step was a trial in the Senate. Then-House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., picked a team of 13 of his GOP colleagues — all of them lawyers — to help him make his case.
The New York Times reported that year that the 13 House “managers” selected were all generally more conservative than a random sampling of House Republicans at the time. Many of them were former prosecutors.
They included some who are still in Congress, including U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who’s now chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee; and Reps. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., and Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, who remain members of the House Judiciary Committee. Another Pennsylvanian, former Republican Rep. George Gekas, of Harrisburg, was also on the team of House managers.
For the month-long Senate trial in early 1999, those House managers argued for Clinton’s removal, although they knew their chances of success were slim.
The Senate ultimately acquitted Clinton, failing to get the two-thirds majority of votes needed to convict him and remove him from office.
“We knew that maybe we wouldn’t win it in the Senate for a whole host of reasons, but we all thought we had to do our best,” said former Florida Republican Rep. Bill McCollum, who was among the House managers.
McCollum, now a partner at the law firm Dentons, was charged with delivering the House managers’ closing arguments against Clinton on the Senate floor.
He told senators at the time, “I suspect that most of you — probably more than two-thirds — believe that the president did, indeed, commit most, if not all, of the crimes he is charged with under these articles of impeachment. I suspect that a great many of you share my view that these are high crimes and misdemeanors.”
And he warned senators that there would be “some very significant negative consequences of failing to remove this president.”
McCollum said he wasn’t worried about any political consequences for participating in the trial. “I felt it just wasn’t something that I should put my finger in the wind and worry about,” he said. “I did what I thought was right.”
McCollum left the House after running for a Florida Senate seat in the 2000 election. He clinched the Republican nomination, but lost to Democrat Bill Nelson.
Another House manager in the Clinton trial was Rep. James Rogan, R-Calif., who lost his 2000 re-election bid to U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, who’s now the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
Rogan “was under the most pressure and did in fact lose the next time around because he was in a very Democrat district that didn’t like this happening and he did it anyway,” McCollum said. “There’s the one who should get the profile in courage.” Rogan is now a judge on the Superior Court of California.
‘Literally anything can happen’
McCollum doesn’t think it’s wise for House Democrats to attempt to oust Trump from office.
“It’s certainly possible that they would choose to impeach him,” he said. “I think politically it’s not smart for them to do. I don’t think the same circumstances [that existed when Clinton was impeached] exist today in this situation.”
Donald Ritchie, who was the U.S. Senate historian from 1976 until 2015, said in a recent interview, “I certainly don’t think there’s the slightest chance of the president being removed.”
He added, “if you’ve got the speaker of the House saying it’s not a good idea, I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
Pelosi told the Washington Post in March, “Impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country. And he’s just not worth it,” she said of Trump.
But Pelosi hasn’t closed that door entirely. “We can’t impeach him for political reasons and we can’t not impeach him for political reasons,” she said earlier this month. “We have to see where the facts take us.”
Some legal scholars have questioned whether the Senate could stave off a trial even if the House votes to impeach Trump.
Current Senate rules contemplate that a House vote on impeachment will lead to House managers presenting their case, wrote Bob Bauer, former White House counsel to President Obama.
However, Bauer suggested, “it is also possible that, in this time of disregard and erosion of established institutional practices and norms, the current leadership of the Senate could choose to abrogate them once more” by attempting to block a trial.
Bauer noted that the Constitution confers on the Senate “the sole power to try,” but doesn’t expressly direct the chamber to try an impeachment.
“There’s no absolute requirement, but the Senate has always followed through and held a trial,” Ritchie said. “Public pressure would probably require some response,” he added.
He expects that Republicans would calculate that there would be no chance of surpassing the huge hurdle of getting the votes of a two-thirds majority in the Senate needed to remove the president.
“In the era of Trump, literally anything can happen,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin. D-Md., another member of the House Judiciary Committee. “But if you have any lingering appreciation for the language and the meaning of the Constitution, there’s no choice that the Senate has to conduct a trial.”
He said of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., “He can bury pretty much everything else, but he cannot bury an impeachment trial.”