Washington: Mounting support among Democrats in Congress for impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump seems unlikely to change House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's caution on moving ahead with the politically risky move, Democrats said on Thursday.
Support for an impeachment inquiry has surged about 30% among Democrats in the House of Representatives since former Special Counsel Robert Mueller testified on July 24 about his probe of Trump and Russian interference in the 2016 election, a Reuters headcount shows.
The latest tally lists 116 lawmakers favouring impeachment proceedings, two shy of a majority of House Democrats, whose ranks total 235 members.
Support stood at 89 lawmakers days before Mueller's appearance and there could be a pro-impeachment majority among Democrats well before the House returns from its summer recess on Sept. 9.
But the total is still far short of the 218 House votes needed to approve an impeachment resolution, and polls continue to show voters sharply divided over the issue.
A House Democratic majority favouring impeachment could put new pressure on Pelosi, who opposes impeachment as a politically risky move unless investigators find powerful evidence of misconduct by Trump that can unify public opinion.
Pelosi's office did not answer questions from Reuters about her next steps on impeachment. But the top Democrat in the Senate affirmed and defended her strategy.
"I talk to her three, four, five times a day. I think we have the same view. Let's get the facts. Let's get all the facts, and then we'll make decisions," Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer told reporters.
"Every member of the House and Senate is going to do what he or she thinks is appropriate. I think, as I said, Speaker Pelosi is handling this appropriately," he said when asked if the calculus needed to change.
House Democratic aides also said a new approach was unlikely.
Democratic leaders have been careful to avoid a full House vote to authorize an impeachment inquiry, a step that could harm the re-election prospects of vulnerable House Democrats from swing districts where many voters are against impeachment.
Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee effectively rebranded their six-month-old oversight investigation of Trump as an impeachment probe last week, when they asked a federal judge for access to Mueller's grand jury evidence to determine whether to recommend articles of impeachment against Trump.
"The inquiry has already begun," Representative Ted Deutch, the latest Democrat to back impeachment proceedings, said in an opinion article published in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel on Thursday. "No additional step is required. No magic words need to be uttered on the House floor. No vote to authorize an impeachment inquiry is necessary."
Representative Doug Collins, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, dismissed rank-and-file Democratic support for impeachment. "They don't have the evidence, they haven't started an impeachment inquiry, and they're trying to distract from both these realities in the face of pressure from the far left," he said in a statement.
But with a majority of House Democrats favouring impeachment proceedings, the committee could have the political scope to open a formal impeachment inquiry on its own, without a House floor vote.
"Impeachment does not require a vote of the House. They could have a hearing for consideration of an opening of an impeachment inquiry," said Paul Rosenzweig, a senior fellow at R Street Institute, a conservative Washington think tank.
Committee officials declined to comment.
Kevin Mack, lead strategist for the advocacy group Need to Impeach, said House Democrats could also become more aggressive toward former Trump aides such as former White House Communications Director Hope Hicks and former White House Counsel Don McGahn, who are under subpoena.
"You're going to have a much tougher time hiding behind the president over the next couple of months," Mack said.