WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - A fiery debate opened in the US House of Representatives on Tuesday (Jan 12) over a Democratic-led effort to remove President Donald Trump from office for inciting supporters who stormed the Capitol last week, while Trump denied any wrongdoing.
Democrats pushed Republican lawmakers to disavow Trump's false allegation that President-elect Joe Biden's victory in the Nov 3 election was illegitimate - the claim that enraged Trump's supporters and prompted the violence in Washington that killed five including a police officer.
Republicans refused to concede the point and said their unsuccessful effort last week to challenge the results of the election was justified.
But in a sign of divisions within the party, House Republican leaders have decided not to lobby their members against voting for impeachment, two House leadership aides told Reuters, leaving the decision to each lawmaker's conscience.
Making his first public appearance since last Wednesday's riot, Trump defended the remarks he made to supporters at a rally before they stormed the seat of Congress and also lambasted Democrats for pushing ahead with a drive to impeach him for an unprecedented second time.
"What I said was totally appropriate," Trump told reporters as he left for a trip to the US-Mexico border wall near Alamo, Texas, his first public foray since the assault on the Capitol. "I want no violence."
The Republican president did not answer a reporter's question about whether he would resign.
The Democratic-controlled House plans to vote as soon as Wednesday on an article of impeachment charging Trump with inciting insurrection unless he resigns or Vice-President Mike Pence moves to oust him under a provision in the US Constitution.
The House will vote later on Tuesday on a resolution calling on Pence, a Republican, to invoke Section 4 of the 25th Amendment, a never-before used power that allows a majority of the Cabinet to strip the president of power if he or she is deemed unable to discharge the office's duties.
Pence advisers say he is opposed to the idea, and Trump told reporters in Texas he was not worried about the prospect.
"The 25th Amendment is of zero risk to me," Trump said, standing in front of a section of the Mexico border wall in Texas.
With only eight days left in Trump's term, chances the Democratic push will result in his removal before Biden takes office on Jan 20 appear remote. But Democrats say Trump's actions demand a response.
"Our nation, our democracy and our freedom cannot risk another day of the Trump presidency," said Representative Jim McGovern, the chairman of the House Rules Committee.
Democrats could also use an impeachment trial to push through a vote blocking Trump from running for office again.
Partisan battle lines
At a Rules Committee session setting the timeline and procedures for Tuesday's debate, lawmakers previewed the potentially emotional battle over the resolution with angry exchanges over Republican efforts to cast doubt on Biden's sweeping election win.
McGovern challenged Republican Representative Jim Jordan, a staunch Trump ally who received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from the president on Monday, to declare that Biden won "fair and square and the election was not stolen."
Jordan refused to utter those words and defended his challenges to the Electoral College result saying: "I followed the process the Constitution prescribes" when there are concerns over a state's election results.
"I am stunned that after all that has happened we cannot get a definitive answer," McGovern responded as the two lawmakers sparred and talked over each other.
If Trump has not stepped down and Pence has not taken action by Wednesday, Democratic leaders plan to bring impeachment to the House floor.
US Representative Tom Reed, a moderate Republican, wrote in a New York Times op-ed that he and House colleagues would introduce a censure resolution against Trump on Tuesday as an alternative to a "rushed, divisive" impeachment.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top congressional Democrat, told Democratic members on a conference call on Monday that a censure "would be an abdication of our responsibility," according to a source familiar with the call.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, has said no trial could begin until the chamber returns from its recess on Jan 19.
But Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who is set to become the majority leader after two Democrats from Georgia are seated and Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris is sworn in, told reporters the Senate could be recalled to handle the matter.
Top Democrats are still debating whether it would be better to send the impeachment charge against Trump to the Senate immediately on passing it or wait to give Biden time to work with senators to confirm his nominees and pass priority legislation before setting off a fresh partisan brawl.
A Senate conviction requires a two-thirds majority of those present, which means at least 17 Republicans would have to break with a president who has maintained an iron grip over his party for four years. An impeachment trial also could proceed even after Trump leaves office.
The president's actions have driven a wedge among Republicans, with a handful of lawmakers either calling for him to step down immediately or saying they will consider supporting impeachment.
Impeachment appears likely to pass the House. The lawmakers who drafted the formal charge say at least 218 of the 222 Democrats in the chamber already support it.
The House impeached Trump in December 2019 for pressuring Ukraine's president to investigate Biden, but the Republican-controlled Senate acquitted him in February 2020.
Only two other US presidents have been impeached.
After last week's chaos, authorities are hardening security ahead of Biden's inauguration, which has already been dramatically scaled back due to the coronavirus pandemic.