WASHINGTON — New divides opened among House Democrats on Tuesday over how to uphold Congress’s oversight powers in the face of President Trump’s stonewalling, with a sizable bloc of progressive lawmakers pushing for the first time over their leaders’ objections to start an impeachment inquiry.
Democrats were at odds about how to fight the latest defiance of a House subpoena, this time by the former White House counsel Donald F. McGahn II, who skipped a scheduled hearing on Tuesday about Mr. Trump’s attempts to obstruct the Russia investigation.
Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, promised to hold Mr. McGahn in contempt of Congress and warned Mr. Trump and other potential witnesses to expect new hardball tactics. Democratic lawmakers and aides said they could include new subpoenas, possible rules changes allowing the House to fine people held in contempt, and threats to Mr. Trump’s legislative priorities as leverage for compliance.
“We will not allow the president to stop this investigation, and nothing in these unjustified and unjustifiable legal attacks will stop us from pressing forward with our work on behalf of the American people,” Mr. Nadler said during a brief hearing of an emotionally raw Judiciary Committee. “We will hold this president accountable, one way or the other.”
The Democrats’ divisions spring from a shared fear that Mr. Trump is succeeding not just in evading congressional accountability himself but in permanently rewriting the rules of engagement between the legislative and executive branches, freeing future presidents from one of the Constitution’s most potent checks on their power.
“We can focus on McGahn. We can focus on Barr. We can focus on Michael Cohen. We can call the roll,” Representative Val B. Demings, a Florida Democrat on the Judiciary Committee who supports impeachment, said in an interview. “But the problem here is the president of the United States.”
Their concerns that Mr. Trump might be permanently weakening Congress’s powers prompted prominent progressive lawmakers on and off the Judiciary Committee to declare in private meetings and public statements in the past 24 hours that they saw no choice but to initiate an impeachment inquiry.
The new supporters of impeachment included Representative Mark Pocan, Democrat of Wisconsin and a co-chairman of the influential Congressional Progressive Caucus, and Representative Mary Gay Scanlon, Democrat of Pennsylvania and the vice chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee.
They argued that such an investigation would streamline disparate House inquiries and empower the committees in their push to conduct oversight of the executive branch. And they expressed hope it would show the public that the fight over documents and witnesses is not just another Washington partisan squabble, but a showdown with historic implications.
“Congress has patiently tried to work within traditional means to get to the bottom of this extraordinary situation,” Ms. Scanlon said. “The time has come to start an impeachment inquiry because the American people deserve to know the truth and to have the opportunity to judge the gravity of the evidence and charges leveled against the president.”
Neither side is getting help from House Republicans, who despite the abdication of Representative Justin Amash of Michigan, who came out in favor of impeachment over the weekend, remain opposed to any additional investigation.
“Here we go again — the theater is open,” said Representative Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, at the outset of Tuesday’s hearing. He proceeded to blast Mr. Nadler for abusing his subpoena power to make unreasonable demands of the White House and witnesses to “get a headline.” Mr. Trump has made similar arguments, saying Democrats are merely trying for a “do-over” after Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, could not show he committed a crime.
Democrats continue to hold out hopes, albeit diminishing ones, that they can secure testimony from Mr. Mueller himself. Talks between the special counsel’s staff and House Democrats continued to grind along this week, according to two people familiar with the conversations. Mr. Mueller’s team is questioning the timing and format of possible testimony, including how much of any hearing would take place in public rather than behind closed doors, they said.
The slow pace of the talks goes appears to go beyond logistics: House aides involved in the report say they have gotten the sense that Mr. Mueller, and some of his aides, would rather let his written report speak for itself than push him into the partisan fray.
Press officers for the Justice Department and the special counsel’s office declined to comment.
Impeachment advocates are also increasingly butting heads with their own leader, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who holds the ultimate decision-making power over her caucus’s strategy and has consistently warned against the divisiveness of impeachment. Several members of the California Democrat’s own leadership team confronted her in private on Monday night with arguments in favor of beginning an inquiry, only to be gently swatted down with calls to stay the current course.
“Candidly, I don’t probably think there’s any Democrat who probably wouldn’t in their gut say, ‘He’s done some things that probably justify impeachment,’” Ms. Pelosi’s top deputy, Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, said on Tuesday. “Having said that — this is the important thing — I think the majority of Democrats continue to believe that we need to continue to pursue the avenue that we’ve been on, in trying to elicit information, testimony, review the Mueller report, review other items. If the facts lead us to broader action, so be it.”
But in a sign that Ms. Pelosi senses her caucus growing restless, she called a Wednesday morning meeting to update them on the status and strategy behind the House’s investigations. And people involved in the investigations say that the speaker approved an escalation of tactics short of impeachment to try to turn the tables.
Mr. McGahn may become a test case. He skipped the Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday under order of the White House, leaving an empty chair where Democrats had hoped he could serve as a star eyewitness as they seek to build a public case of wrongdoing. The president ordered him on Monday not to appear, citing a Justice Department legal opinion that the Constitution gives senior presidential aides “absolute immunity” from congressional subpoenas compelling them to testify about their official work.
In addition to fighting those claims in court, Democrats indicated that they would swiftly move to hold Mr. McGahn in contempt, perhaps taking the case straight to the House floor rather than waiting for a committee vote. They are newly considering altering House rules to allow for so-called inherent contempt penalties, like fines, people familiar with internal discussions said.
Hours after the hearing, Mr. Nadler issued subpoenas for documents and testimony from two more possible witnesses to acts of obstruction: Hope Hicks, the former White House communications director; and Annie Donaldson, Mr. McGahn’s chief of staff. There was no guarantee, though, that they would appear before Congress.
The Judiciary Committee has already voted to recommend that the full House hold Attorney General William P. Barr in contempt for his defiance of another subpoena asking for Mr. Mueller’s full report and underlying evidence. Democratic leaders had been stalling on bringing the contempt citation to the floor of the full House, but have not indicated they will accelerate a vote when they return in June from the Memorial Day recess.
Ms. Pelosi is said to be newly open to pulling Mr. Trump’s policy priorities into the fray, too. Thus far, she had refused to touch some of Congress’s traditional leverage buttons, like government appropriations bills.
The new arrows in Democrats’ quiver came after lawmakers pushing for impeachment pressed her in a pair of private meetings Monday night
After Ms. Pelosi lamented to members of her leadership team that the battles with the president were overshadowing Democrats’ legislative agenda, Representative Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland, argued that opening an impeachment inquiry could help solve the problem by centralizing fights with the White House over documents, according to three people in the room for the exchange, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private meeting.
Ms. Pelosi, who has long tried to move her caucus away from impeachment, was cool to opening such an inquiry right away. She asked Mr. Raskin whether he was suggesting the four other investigative committees just close up their work, the people said, and pointed out that Democrats had won an early court victory on Monday in a dispute over a House subpoena for Trump financial records.
Pressed in another meeting by Representative Steve Cohen, Democrat of Tennessee, whether she was making a political calculation in tamping down impeachment talk, Ms. Pelosi insisted the answer was no, according to one of the people.
“This isn’t about politics at all,” she said. “It’s about patriotism. It’s about the strength we need to have to see things through.”
Ms. Pelosi has numerous allies, even on the overwhelmingly liberal Judiciary Committee. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrat of Texas, said she was not ready for an impeachment inquiry. “Our job is to educate before we activate,” she told reporters.
And Representative Lucy McBath, a Georgia freshman who is one of the lone Judiciary Committee members from a swing district, said she was trying to remind her colleagues of the political realities of an ideological diverse caucus and voters who sent them there.
“For people like me that are in the kinds of districts that I am in, impeachment is not something that a lot of people in my district want to talk about,” she said. “But at the same time I am tasked with being on this committee to make sure that no one is above the law.”