Irvine, California (CNN)It didn’t take long for freshman Rep. Katie Porter to get the question that’s been roiling House Democrats this summer: Should Congress impeach President Donald Trump?
When a constituent told her that “impeachment was a mistake” — because it would help Trump politically — in her first question at an August town hall in her home district, the California Democrat didn’t hesitate.”I came out in favor of impeaching Donald Trump because no American, especially not a democratically elected President, can be above the rule of law,” Porter said, sparking rousing applause from the several hundred attendees packed into the Islamic Center of Irvine on a recent Saturday afternoon.”I was one of the first people who flipped a seat to come out on this,” she continued. “People said, ‘Well, you know, this might be risky. You might not get reelected.’ I said I’m here to do what’s right.”Porter’s exchange underscores the questions that she and other freshman House Democrats who won Republican seats last year are facing as they’re confronted by constituents with a wide mix of impassioned opinions: an urge to embrace impeachment, trepidation that impeachment will actually help Trump get reelected and outright anger over the Democrats’ flirtation with seeking to remove the sitting President from office.Read MoreThe Democrats such as Porter who have come out for an impeachment inquiry faced voters at town halls over the past month who cheered their position, urged them to go forward with impeachment but also cautioned about the political consequences they could face. Democrats who haven’t backed an impeachment inquiry, meanwhile, are still being pushed by liberal Democrats to get on board. As lawmakers head back to Washington next week following a six-week recess, the impeachment question will return front and center, with time running short for advocates to get the House moving ahead of House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler’s stated goal of deciding on introducing articles of impeachment by the end of the year.Since Congress took its last vote at the end of July, more than 35 new Democrats have publicly backed an impeachment inquiry, a push that now means a clear majority of House Democrats — more than 130 out of 235, according to CNN’s whip count — support the effort.Democrats in battleground districts like California’s freshmen are key to the impeachment calculus of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has quietly backed the Judiciary Committee’s argument introduced last month in court that it is already conducting an impeachment investigation without a formal vote on an impeachment inquiry.In California, Democrats won seven Republican-held seats in 2018 as they swept into control of the House, and the districts are shaping up to be a key House battleground again next year. For the state’s freshmen Democrats, the divide over how to handle impeachment is split almost down the middle: Reps. Porter, Harley Rouda and Mike Levin have come out in favor of an impeachment inquiry, while Reps. Katie Hill, Gil Cisneros, Josh Harder and TJ Cox have not.The front-line Democrats are being knocked on the issue by the House Republican campaign arm, which has lobbed attacks at both those who have come out for an impeachment inquiry and those who have yet to weigh in on the matter.That hasn’t stopped the pressure from rank-and-file lawmakers. During a member conference call in August, Pelosi responded bluntly to another push to move on impeachment: “The public isn’t there yet,” she said, according to a senior Democratic aide. “It’s your voice and constituency, but give me the leverage I need to make sure that we’re ready and it is as strong as it can be.”Building ‘the best possible case’According to Hill, the voices are getting stronger in favor of impeachment, though she’s still waiting until more evidence is gathered before making a decision.Hill, who represents a district that covers swaths of northern Los Angeles, said in an interview that she’s hearing about impeachment from her constituents in addition to a more bankrolled push.”I just had Facebook ads run against me saying that 29,000 people in CA-25 have signed a petition for impeachment. Why isn’t Katie Hill?” she said. “But I have heard more and more and more about impeachment. My staff has been saying that they’ve been getting more and more calls about it.”Hill is rejecting any need to come out in favor of an impeachment inquiry, arguing that the House Judiciary Committee is already investigating, so she’s going to wait until a decision needs to be made on articles of impeachment themselves.Democrats widen impeachment probe as they confront roadblocks“We have to have the best possible case. We shouldn’t go into it half-baked in any way, shape or form. So I want the lawsuits to progress. I want us to get the information back that we’re expecting,” she said. “I feel confident in saying, ‘Listen, We’re probably going to get there.’ But this is my stance in terms of at what point we call for it.”Others who haven’t announced support for an impeachment inquiry, like Cisneros, say they nevertheless support Nadler’s investigation, which the committee is now calling an impeachment investigation. That was the point Cisneros made when a constituent pressed him on impeachment at a town hall in Fullerton this week, according to a video posted by a political tracker.The Democrats who have come out in favor of an impeachment inquiry also make a distinction between supporting an investigation and actually voting to impeach Trump.At a town hall last month in Del Mar, Levin was pressed by a constituent who said he agreed with his stance on impeachment but was concerned that impeachment would allow Trump to say, “I’m acquitted, I’m not guilty” when the Senate doesn’t convict him.”Let’s take a step back. There’s a difference between supporting an impeachment inquiry and supporting impeachment of the President,” responded Levin, who represents a coastal district spanning Orange and San Diego counties. “We need to build the strongest case possible before we go to the floor with a vote on articles of impeachment. And when I’ve seen the evidence, when I’ve seen the truth … that’s when I’ll determine whether or not we move forward with articles of impeachment.”‘Behavior that we have never seen among presidents before’Both Levin and Porter acknowledged publicly that if the House moved forward on impeachment, the Senate was highly unlikely to convict the President.But they also argued that was beside the point.”Given that we can’t get the Senate to pass things like background checks (for purchasing firearms) that have the support of 90% of Republicans, I don’t think we’re going to see the Senate take action. But that doesn’t mean we get to be silent,” Porter said at her town hall. “To be honest, if the only times I got out of bed were days that I thought something I was going to vote on would pass the Senate, I’d have bedsores.” Porter, who won an Orange County district that had been represented by a Republican since it was created in 1983, said Democrats will keep working on issues, from local environmental problems to national challenges like gun control, health care and immigration, regardless of what the House does with impeachment.”I am more than capable of making sure that Donald Trump is going to be held accountable — at the same time I am doing hard work to deliver results on health care … prescription drugs, affordable housing,” Porter said. Rouda, who represents a coastal Orange County district, made a similar case at his town hall last week at a seniors center in Corona Del Mar, ticking off the legislation he’s helped pass and his efforts to work across the aisle. But he received his most enthusiastic response when an attendee asked him why a President “can do whatever he wants?” “Impeach!” one woman yelled after Rouda said there was “no doubt that we see conduct and behavior that we have never seen among presidents before.”Rouda ignored the shouter and didn’t mention the word impeachment, but he found an answer to satisfy Democrats both enthusiastic and concerned about impeachment. “Ultimately, the best way to bring regular course of conduct back to the White House: Change the President,” Rouda said to loud cheers.’No one in their right mind would want to impeach’For Marty DeWindt, a Laguna Hills resident in Porter’s district who attended her town hall, the shift to support an impeachment inquiry follows her own shift on the subject. When Porter announced she would support an impeachment inquiry in June, “I went, ‘no, no, no,’ ” DeWindt said.That’s no longer the case. “I’ve changed my stance on impeachment. I’ve changed my mind in the last several days,” she said. “It’s hit a tipping point, what he’s done to disrupt the entire world.”Others at Porter’s town hall weren’t so sure, echoing the question posed to Porter about helping Trump politically.”The best thing is that he not get reelected,” said Anna Varughese of Irvine. “It’s time-consuming. He’s only got a little bit over a year left.” At Rouda’s town hall, several Republican constituents said they had come to hear what the freshman lawmaker, who is a former Republican, had to say. But they were unequivocal that impeachment would be a massive miscalculation.”This district is still leaning conservative, and I don’t think, given the economy, no one in their right mind would want to impeach,” said Michael Ridley of Costa Mesa.While the impeachment debate is brewing as the 2020 presidential race kicks off — and it could have a major impact on the fight for control of the House should Democrats move forward with articles of impeachment — the lawmakers mulling whether Trump should be impeached insist that politics won’t play a role in their decision.”I have young children. I would rather they know that their dad did what he felt to be right for the country, rather than what he felt to be politically expedient,” Levin said in an interview. “I will let those chips fall, and I think the voters are smart enough to know we’re trying to do what’s right for the country.”Rouda said in an interview that if he votes for impeachment and it costs him his seat, “The truthful answer is, I will sleep well at night knowing I did the right thing.”But he argued it was incorrect to compare the current debate to the House Republican impeachment of President Bill Clinton. The case against Trump is stronger, he said, and might not spark the same backlash that House Republicans faced at the ballot box two decades ago.”I think an argument could be made just as rationally,” Rouda said, “that taking action would help the Democratic Party in the elections.”