Republicans hoped that by filing a lawsuit against President Obama — a move that is expected to win House endorsement Wednesday — they would mobilize conservatives eager for a confrontation with the White House. But so far it appears to be rallying Democrats at least as much as Republicans.
Warning that the lawsuit is just the first step toward impeachment, Democrats have turned the GOP strategy into their own fundraising and motivational tool, flooding supporters with emails in recent weeks.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) insisted Tuesday there were "no plans" for impeachment, calling talk of the subject a "scam" designed by Democrats to raise money.
But the specter of the nation's first black president being accused in the House of "high crimes and misdemeanors" is something Democrats hope will energize core voters, particularly African Americans. That could be important as Democrats look for ways to guarantee a strong turnout of their supporters in the November election.
On Tuesday, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said the party had raised $7.6 million online since Boehner announced the suit in June, including $1 million collected Monday alone after incoming House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), during a network television interview, repeatedly refused to rule out the possibility of impeachment.
Democrats say Republicans have handed them a new campaign issue. Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio), who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, predicted the threat of impeachment would resonate with African American voters. "Certainly we do protect this president," she said. "He is our president, just as he is the president of all Americans."
The Republican lawsuit and Democratic response underscore the way much of the maneuvering in Congress is shaped by election-year fundraising needs. The fracas also shows how efforts to rally party stalwarts sometimes spiral beyond leaders' control.
The lawsuit began as a strategy by Republican leaders to tap into conservatives' resentment over what they see as the White House's abuse of power, but without going so far as to pursue impeachment. At a news conference Tuesday, Boehner continued with that strategy, insisting impeachment was off the table.
"This whole talk about impeachment is coming from the president's own staff and coming from Democrats on Capitol Hill," Boehner said. "We have no plans to impeach the president. We have no future plans."
But former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and other conservatives continue to push Republican leaders to consider impeachment, the constitutionally prescribed method of initiating a president's removal. Several have criticized Boehner's lawsuit as insufficient.
Strategists warn that an impeachment strategy could backfire for Republicans if it is seen by many Americans as an extreme step. When House Republicans moved to impeach President Clinton in 1998, his popularity rose and Republicans lost seats in the fall election.
The chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Rep. Steve Israel of New York, touted the influx of donations tied to the Republican lawsuit, but said he viewed the possibility of impeachment as "horrific" and said it was not central to the Democrats' election strategy. He cited the 2013 government shutdown as proof it that was a real threat despite what Boehner or others might say.
"We may not believe that impeachment is viable, but around this table very few would have believed that a government shutdown of 16 days was viable," Israel said. "They can't help themselves."
Signaling concern that Democrats were gaining the political upper hand, Israel's Republican counterpart, Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, privately urged fellow Republicans on Tuesday to avoid any further discussion of what he called "the I-word." Speaking with reporters later, Walden echoed Boehner in accusing Democrats of propagating talk of impeachment as a base-rallying exercise, but he also defended the decision to sue Obama.
"The American people, especially independent voters … believe this administration has overreached time and again," said Walden, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "They are clamoring for somebody to push back, in a responsible way, to get the administration to start following the law and not exceeding the law."
There is rising speculation that the White House may actually be trying to goad Republicans into pushing for impeachment by raising the possibility of more significant executive actions tied to immigration. Last week, senior White House advisor Dan Pfeiffer denied that the administration viewed the fight over impeachment as good for Obama, but Pfeiffer repeatedly raised the prospect during a meeting with journalists.
Hours later, the Democrats' campaign committee sent an email citing Pfeiffer's remarks as "an all-hands-on-deck moment." The email read: "We need an absolute EXPLOSION of grass-roots support in response to the threat of impeachment."
On Tuesday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the White House was not involved in the timing of the campaign committee's solicitations, but did not disavow the strategy. He came to the daily White House briefing armed with a list of Republicans who have at times made reference to impeachment, an attempt to prove that the discussion is real and not imagined for benefit of Democratic candidates.
"We are very disappointed that in this pivotal week before Congress embarks on a five-week-long August recess … that they're spending so much time debating a taxpayer-funded lawsuit that they are prepared to file against the president just for doing his job," Earnest said.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in an interview that Boehner had no choice but to respond because the talk about impeachment had "reached a level of stupidity."