Democrats rammed a package of ground rules for their impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump through a sharply divided House Thursday, the chamber's first formal vote in a fight that could stretch into the 2020 election year.
The vote was 232-196, with all Republicans against the resolution and two Democratic defectors joining them.
The vote laid down the rules as lawmakers transition from weeks of closed-door interviews with witnesses to public hearings and ultimately to possible votes on whether to recommend Trump's removal from office.
The action also took on more than technical meaning, with each party aware that the impeachment effort looms as a defining issue for next year's presidential and congressional campaigns.
Democrats spoke of lawmakers' duty to defend the Constitution, while Republicans cast the process as a skewed attempt to railroad a president whom Democrats have detested since before he took office.
“What is at stake in all this is nothing less than our democracy,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Underscoring her point, she addressed the House with a poster of the American flag beside her and began her remarks by reading the opening lines of the preamble to the Constitution.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said Trump had done nothing impeachable and accused Democrats of trying to remove him “because they are scared they cannot defeat him at the ballot box.”
The No. 3 House Republican leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana accused Democrats of imposing “Soviet-style rules,” speaking in front of a bright red poster depicting the Kremlin.
The investigation is focused on Trump's efforts to push Ukraine to investigate his Democratic political opponents by withholding military aid and an Oval Office meeting craved by the country's new president.
It is likely to take weeks or more before the House decides whether to vote on actually impeaching Trump. If the House does vote for impeachment, the Senate would hold a trial to decide whether to remove the president from office.